Fantasia 2018: The People’s Republic of Desire Review


Livestreaming celebrity Shen Man in a scene from the documentary film The People’s Republic of Desire.

Yes, Fantasia shows documentaries, too!

The People’s Republic of Desire is a fascinating (and sad, disturbing and depressing) introduction to China’s livestreaming celebrities. Some people from very humble beginnings have become rich and famous because they are very good at cajoling, begging, browbeating their fans into sending them gifts and money, lots of money.

(I’ll confess, while watching the first few minutes of the film I wondered if “success” could really be this easy? During the Q&A, I found out that I was not the only one. Of course, we later find out that fame can be fickle.)

Some of those fans are filthy rich, and they support their favourite star because they have so much money that they can afford to throw it away. Being a generous patron brings them fame, too. In the case of female celebrities, many of the (male) patrons want to sleep with them. The celebrities walk a tightrope, flirting and teasing without satisfying these guys. (If they succumb, the gifts will stop, the guys will blab, and millions of people will accuse them of being sluttish.)

Other fans are quite poor themselves, but they feel a sense of solidarity with the stars, who were once as poor as they are. Following the stars, and helping to support them, brings some pleasure to their otherwise boring and difficult lives. Collectively, the fans call themselves an “army.”

The People’s Republic of Desire concentrates on “comedian” Big Li, “singer” Shen Man, their families and their fans. I use quotes above because we don’t hear many of Li’s jokes or Shen’s songs. Her voice sounds OK, but director Hao Wu shows us what I think is a vocoder – is that the audio equivalent of plastic surgery? Shen admits that she has had plenty of surgery, too.

On the other hand, Big Li is fat and not handsome, either, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming popular. His wife is his manager which puts a strain on their marriage. He sometimes rebels against her like a kid who doesn’t want to get up or eat his vegetables. He is also under pressure to join a big management company. Yes, there is lots of competition to manage the celebrities and take a cut of their earnings.

Shen Man has pressures of her own – she is the sole support of her father, stepmother and younger siblings. And who bought that furniture, anyway? It’s really quétaine, as we say here in Quebec.

In the Q&A director Hao Wu explains that he had intended to follow the stars for just one year, but that turned into three. An annual competition for most popular celebrity provides a natural focus. Shen Man has won it, and wants to stay on top. Big Li has lost several times and wonders if he should keep fighting or just give it all up. The awards show for the competition looks just as glitzy as Hollywood’s Oscars and Golden Globes. Maybe it has a large audience, too.

The graphics in The People’s Republic of Desire are superlative, immersive and very busy!

The film has won many awards already and will probably continue to do so. See it if you can! Hao Wu will be at the Fantasia screening to answer questions.

CAST: Jiang Congyong, Man Shen, Li Xianliang
COMPOSER: Michael Tuller
ANIMATOR: Eric Jordan
CONTACT: Tripod Media LLC
HONORS: Grand Jury Award (Documentary), SXSW 2018, Grand Jury Award (International Documentary), Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival 2018, 21 CF Award, Best Cinematography, CAAMFest 2018

The People’s Republic of Desire, Friday, July 20, 2018, 1:00 PM, Salle J.A. De Sève, 1400 de Maisonneuve W.
Metro Guy-Concordia

P.S. When I read the synopsis of The People’s Republic of Desire I thought that it might be a bit like the film Dragonfly Eyes, shown here in Montreal at the 2017 edition of the RIDM documentary festival. It isn’t really, though the main character does become an Internet celebrity near the end. Dragonfly Eyes has mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but I thought it was worth watching.


RIDM 2017 Review: Don’t Miss Dragonfly Eyes!

In the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes, Qing Ting, a woman who has spent several years living in a Buddhist monastery decides that she must leave.

Dragonfly Eyes is one of my favourite films of RIDM 2017. It’s inventive, fascinating and more than a little disturbing.

While the dialogue in Dragonfly Eyes is read by actors, the video portion of the film is made entirely from snippets of surveillance video found on the Internet. This gives new meaning to “found footage” and it’s more entertaining to me than those films about people who get lost in the woods or the jungle and then spend an hour shrieking at each other until someone drops the camera. (Rant over!)

Qing Ting (Dragonfly) has spent the last few years living in a monastery. She was sent there for its calming effects, and considered becoming a nun, but changes are in the offing at the monastery and she does not feel comfortable there anymore.

She goes to the city and takes a job at a dairy farm. (Sounds weird when you think about it, that’s not a calm place, either. Are there dairy farms in cities? It seems so!) The work is hard, it doesn’t pay much, the bosses are disrespectful and the cows and workers are under constant camera surveillance. The people who watch the screens are watched as well.

Everyone and everything seems to be under surveillance in the Chinese docu-fiction Dragonfly Eyes.

At the farm, Qing Ting is noticed by the technician Ke Fan, and they start spending time together, visiting restaurants, and driving out into the countryside. Soon he is calling himself her boyfriend, even though she doesn’t seem to want one. Ke Fan does things that he thinks will please her, again without asking if that’s what she really wants. He’s quite violent, though not towards her. After assorted incidents that I won’t spoil here, Qing Ting loses her job at the dairy. She is insulted in her search for a new job and insulted some more once she gets one.

Ke Fan is sent to jail for several years, and starts looking for Qing Ting as soon as he gets out. It’s not easy, because she does not want to be found.

What do I mean by disturbing? Ke Fan’s violence, other violent instances we see, celebrity culture, an obsession with money and appearances, and all that surveillance video. In many places I couldn’t help but think, why would anyone need to watch or tape those places, or this activity?

Director Xu Bing collected hundreds of hours of video from the Internet to make the film. In many instances, the people who installed the cameras had not changed default passwords and other default settings, and they probably did not even know that they were broadcasting to the Internet.

Dragonfly Eyes

Country : China
Year : 2017
V.O : Mandarin, English
Subtitles : English and French (depending on the screening date)
Duration : 81 Min
Director: Xu Bing

Editing : Matthieu Laclau, Zhang Wenchao
Production : Matthieu Laclau, Zhai Yongming, Xu Bing
Writer : Zhai Yongming, Zhang Hanyi
Music : Yoshihiro Hanno
Sound Design : Li Danfeng

Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017
Dragonfly Eyes, 81 minutes long, in Mandarin with French subtitles, at Cinémathèque Québécoise, Salle Principale, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E.

RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at for more information.

RIDM presents Behemoth, a Chinese documentary about an environmental nightmare

Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth shows how parts of Inner Mongolia have been destroyed by coal mining.
Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth shows how parts of Inner Mongolia have been destroyed by coal mining.

RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, takes place in November, but festival organizers keep the doc spirit alive throughout the year with monthly screenings at Cinema du Parc.

The selection for Thursday, May 26, 2016, is the Chinese film Behemoth, from director Zhao Liang.

Behemoth looks at the human and environmental devastation created by coal mining in Inner Mongolia. The landscape is scarred and ugly, while the men have blackened faces and hands. Imagine what their lungs must look like. We don’t see any chest X-rays in the trailer, but we do see them cough and struggle for breath. We see some hooked up to oxygen tanks, too.

The sooty face of a coal miner in Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth.
The sooty face of a coal miner in Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth.

That coal powers smoky, noisy, iron foundries and steel plants that glow with red-hot heat like a vision of hell. In fact, Zhao Liang took inspiration from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which sees the Florentine poet travel to Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Behemoth uses excerpts from the poem in place of dialogue.

Foundry employees work with molten metal in Zhao Liang's documentary film Behemoth.
Foundry employees work with molten metal in Zhao Liang’s documentary film Behemoth.

I have read more than 10 reviews of Behemoth and they were all extremely enthusiastic. Here are quotes from a few of them.

Variety’s Jay Weissberg says Behemoth is: “stunningly lensed. . .impressively self-shot poetic exercise in controlled righteous outrage. . .”

In the New York Times, Amy Qin writes: “documentary combines with art film to produce a powerful testament to the human and environmental costs of coal mining and consumption in China, the world’s biggest user of coal and the leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal.”

In Screen Daily,  Lee Marshall writes: “Vast swathes of once-pristine Mongolian prairieland have, in the last couple of decades, become scarred and brutalised by open-cast coal mines, iron foundries and generating stations, with thousands of desperate Chinese migrant workers brought in to feed the insatiable demand for disposable, low-paid manpower to keep them operating. That’s the background to Zhao Liang’s remarkable, powerful film Behemoth (Beixi moshuo), a sort of ‘dream documentary’ set in this ravaged landscape but liberally inspired by Dante. Behemoth achieves much of its authority from the way the images comment wordlessly on a world in which humans are reduced to the status of servants of a vast, unfeeling industrial system.”

“. . .But it’s Behemoth’s final sequence, almost devoid of human figures, that is, paradoxically the most shocking. It shows a Mongolian ghost new-town, with its serried ranks of residential skyscrapers. These are all empty, we soon realise – as are the streets that surround them. Empty, that is, except for teams of migrant-worker street sweepers – one of whom chases after a drift of tumbleweed that has entered the shot, and tidies it away. Refreshingly undidactic, Behemoth leaves us to work out that, after hell and purgatory, this empty metropolis, made by the industrial monster that ravages the steppes, and the sweat and blood of those who serve it, is the film’s tragic, ironic heaven.”

Another Screen Daily writer, Wendy Ide, put Behemoth on her list of best films of 2015. She writes: “Behemoth (Beixi Moshuo) makes me forever grateful I write about films for a living and don’t have to pick bits of molten pig iron out of my skin at the end of each working day.”

Behemoth, Le Dragon Noir, 90 minutes long, with French subtitles
Thursday, May 26, 2016 at 8 p.m.
Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Av. du Parc
To avoid disappointment, consider buying your tickets online, here on Cinéma du Parc’s web site.

FNC 2015 Review: Chinese punk musicians have their say in Never Release My Fist

Wu Wei, standing, centre rear, with his fellow punk musicians outside his bar in Wuhan, China. Note the bagpipes! The history of Chinese punk music is explored in the documentary Never Release My Fist, by Shuibo Wang.
Wu Wei, standing, centre rear, with his fellow punk musicians outside his bar in Wuhan, China. Note the bagpipes! The history of Chinese punk music is explored in the documentary Never Release My Fist, by Shuibo Wang.

If you like punk music, China, or documentary films, then Never Release My Fist is especially for you. But really, I think this film would appeal to any living, breathing person with an interest in his or her fellow human beings, and how they live their lives, struggle to survive, and try to express themselves. I liked it a lot; if I didn’t have another musical commitment today, I would watch it again!

Montreal documentary filmmaker Shuibo Wang received an Oscar nomination for his NFB short, Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square. In Never Release My Fist he explores the world of Chinese punk, with particular attention paid to Wu Wei, who is often described as the father of Chinese punk. He formed his band SMZB in 1996.

Wu Wei describes himself as unemployed and aimless in the first few years after he finished high school, but he now comes across as very thoughtful and articulate man, distressed by the politics and rampant consumer culture in China. All the same, his lyrics sound quite poetic.

Wu Wei is from the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in central China. It’s a city of 10 million people known for heavy industry but it also has several universities, with as many as one million students (potential fans! Though director Wang says that most young Chinese prefer pop music).
While he benefited from some time in Beijing, Wuhan is where Wu Wei played most of his music, and it became the punk hotspot of China.

Musicians everywhere have tough lives, but the punks of Wuhan had little money to buy instruments, few places to play, and they faced government censorship as well. Text messages and email were intercepted.

An image from Never Release My Fist, a documentary film about punk rock in China. It's part of the lineup at the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal.
An image from Never Release My Fist, a documentary film about punk rock in China. It’s part of the lineup at the Festival du nouveau cinema in Montreal.

Wu Wei might be the main star of the film but his bandmates, former bandmates and fellow punk musicians get their share of screen time. Punk in Wuhan was not just a guy thing, either. Women played a big part, too. We see their performances and they share their sometimes harrowing stories and as well.

At some point SMZB included bagpipes and a violin to some songs, a very interesting touch! And Hou Hsiao Hsien uses bagpipes in the closing credits of The Assassin. Are bagpipes a thing in China now?

Filmmaker Shuibo Wang was able to use lots of great vintage footage that was shot before he ever met the musicians. He will attend the screening and answer questions after the film.

Festival du nouveau cinema programmer Julien Fonfrede, left, and Montreal director Shuibo Wang. (Photo copyright Maryse Boyce)
Festival du nouveau cinema programmer Julien Fonfrede, left, and Montreal director Shuibo Wang. (Photo copyright Maryse Boyce)

Never Release My Fist is being shown as part of the Festival du nouveau cinéma, which runs from Oct. 7 – Oct. 18, 2015. Visit the FNC web site for more information about Never Release My Fist.

Never Release My Fist
Directed by Shuibo Wang
China, Canada | 87 minutes | 2015, in Cantonese with English subtitles
Saturday, Oct.17, 2015, 17:00
Program #283
Cinéma du Parc 2, 3575 Ave. du Parc

Go Away Mr. Tumor Review: Hilarity and heartbreak mix amazingly well in this popular film from China

Bai Baihe, left, and Daniel Wu promote their film Go Away, Mr. Tumor. (Xinhua photo)
Bai Baihe, left, and Daniel Wu promote their film Go Away, Mr. Tumor. (Xinhua photo)

Go Away Mr. Tumor is a film full of laughs about a woman who is very ill. This might sound questionable, but the people in the cinema where I saw it (Cineplex Odeom Forum) seemed to like it a lot. It worked for me, too! On top of that, Go Away Mr. Tumor, is drawing huge audiences in China. (Variety says it earned “$29.7 million in four days.”

The main character in Go Away Mr. Tumor is Xiong Dun, aka Bearton – “Xiong like bear, Dun like Newton,” she says – a graphic artist who is 29 but fast approaching 30, and comparing herself to others who did great things at that age, or at least started to do them. (The long list includes computer guys Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and writer Haruki Murakami.)

In the first few scenes, she is so very perky and quirky that I felt annoyed, and feared that I’d made a mistake by going to see the film. False alarm, though; things picked up quite quickly.

While entertaining her friends, in her very nice apartment, Xiong Dun (Bai Baihe, who also uses the name Fay Bai) collapses and ends up in a hospital. The first sight she sees upon waking are the eyes and long eyelashes of Dr. Liang (U.S. actor Daniel Wu.) All right then! Things are not so bad after all. They seem better still after he takes off his surgical mask.

Xiong spends more time dreaming and daydreaming about Dr. Liang, and figuring out how to get more of his attention, than she does thinking about her health problem, which turns out to be quite grave when her test results come back. She obviously thinks that being a patient is a pretty good thing; it allowed her to meet him, after all. There’s a delicate balance here; her craving for attention is almost puppyish, but she’s not pathetic in any way. And she’s quite cute, with her big eyes and gamine haircut. If not for those pesky doctor-patient taboos, who knows what might happen?

Daniel Wu plays Dr. Liang as a guy who’s very serious and very professional, but also very caring. He lives in a bit of a bubble though – he’s astonished to learn that his subordinates are afraid of him. He’s also very busy and mindful of all the proprieties. He gently explains to Xiong that it’s his job to look after her and her job to have faith in him. There doesn’t seem to be any possibilty of more than that. And yet. . .

The two characters do have a lovely rapport. Dr. Liang enjoys listening to Xiong’s stories about her childhood, and her rationale for her sunny outlook on life, even in the face of adversity. (Now and then, I did think that her optimism was a bit farfetched, but hey, some people really are like that. Also, yeah, that “trust me, have faith” thing is more than a little retro and patriarchal, but. . . )

Dream and fantasy sequences add much appeal to Go Away Mr. Tumor. Many are laugh-out loud hilarious, though with hindsight others don’t seem quite as funny as they had been.

In Xiong’s dreams, zombies are a metaphor for her illness. At first, she fights them alone, like a superhero in a video game, or a Marvel movie, wearing a cape, flying around via wirework and firing two guns at once like Chow Yun Fat in an old John Woo movie. Later, when a zombie has her in a chokehold, Dr. Liang appears, dressed all in black, armed with a crossbow, to save her with one well-timed, well-placed arrow. Pow! Peng! Cheers from the audience! (Spoiler, sorry!)

You want this guy on your side, right? Dr. Liang, (Daniel Wu) is prepared to go all out to protect the life of his patient.
You want this guy on your side, right? Dr. Liang, (Daniel Wu) is prepared to go all out to protect the life of his patient.

Another scene mocks the international popularity of romantic Korean TV dramas. Xiong, wearing adorable furry earmuffs, stands in a park amidst falling snowflakes. As she starts to fall over backwards, in a slow motion swoon, Dr. Liang appears, clad in a quietly elegant camel-hair coat. He catches her gracefully with one arm while stopping the snowfall with a masterful, magical snap of his fingers. “Oppa!” Xiong exclaims. (It means “big brother,” but it’s also what Korean girls call their boyfriends, and what fans write on messageboards devoted to their crush. Don’t ask me how I know.) As a further nod to Korea’s powerful influence, Xiong gives Dr. Liang some Korean hand lotion, to repair the damage done by his frequent hand washing. (He keeps it in an office drawer with his British tea.) Korea has its share of medical dramas, the “trust me, have faith” likely appears there, too.

Dr. Liang (Daniel Wu) and his patient Xiong Dun (Bai Baihe) in the Chinese film, Go Away Mr Tumor. Xiong has watched lots of Korean TV dramas and she has a crush on Dr. Liang, so she imagines many scenes like this one.
Dr. Liang (Daniel Wu) and his patient Xiong Dun (Bai Baihe) in the Chinese film, Go Away Mr Tumor. Xiong has watched lots of Korean TV dramas and she has a crush on Dr. Liang, so she imagines many scenes like this one.

Xiong’s friends are a loyal, supportive and entertaining bunch, with some quirks of their own. They visit her often in the hospital, and gleefully help her with an elaborate, spur-of-the-moment prank against her obnoxious ex-boyfriend.

The film is based on the real-life experiences of cartoonist Xiang Yao. (Xiong Dun/Bearton was her pen name, which she chose because bears were her favourite animal.) She had already written several comic books before she became ill; an article on the web site says that her other books were about “teenage love, weight-loss, living the single life and her lifelong idol Michael Jackson.”

Bears were Xiong Dun's favourite animal. Could you tell?
Bears were Xiong Dun’s favourite animal. Could you tell?

Once she became sick she wrote an online comic to raise money for her treatment and share her ordeal with her fans. (While she is often seen sketching in the film, the book is not actually mentioned.) In addition to Go Away Mr Tumor, various articles have rendered the English translation of the book’s title as Go To the Devil, Mr. Tumor, Be Gone, Mr. Tumor, Get out, Mr. Tumor, even F*** Off, Mr. Tumor! The article goes on to say that “More than one million books of the cartoons were sold, and the series inspired millions of people with its optimism and courage.” It includes this quote from Xiang: “I hope my drawings can entertain people and bring positive energy to me and to others. I am happy and delighted that they can enjoy it.”

Go away Mr Tumor Xiong Dun cartoon


BTW: The actors chosen to play her loving parents look quite a bit like their real-life counterparts.

Go Away Mr. Tumor (Gun dan ba! Zhong liu jun)
125 min., in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Director: Han Yan
Cast: Bai Baihe, Daniel Wu, Zhang Zixuan, Li Yuan, Liu Ruilin, Cheng Yi, Liu Lili, Li Jianyi, Temur Mamisashvili, Joel Adrian

In Montreal, Go Away Mr. Tumor is being shown at Cineplex Odeon Forum Cinemas. It’s also being shown in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, in several U.S. cities, and in New Zealand and Australia.


Animation film festival wraps up with three films about heroes

Teacher Ralph Whims us ready to defend his students from an invading motorcycle gang, in the short film, The Chaperone.
Teacher Ralph Whims us ready to defend his students from an invading motorcycle gang, in the short film, The Chaperone.

The closing event of the 2015 Montreal Animated Film Festival is all about heroism.
The feature film is 108 Demon Kings. That film takes elements from the Chinese classic novel Shuihui Zhuan (known in English as The Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh, or All Men Are Brothers) which is based on 12th century events and first published around 1368, and adds a young prince to make it even more appealing to a young audience. (Though, what with good guys and bad guys, demons, monsters, battles, etc., it ought tobe pretty appealing already!)

Image from the animated film 108 Demon Kings.
Image from the animated film 108 Demon Kings.

The The Water Margin is sometimes compared to Robin Hood to give Westerners an idea of the flavour.

The last minute addition of two shorts emphasizes the heroic theme. They are both Canadian and one is local, too!

High school dance, circa 1972, in The Chaperone.
High school dance, circa 1972, in The Chaperone.

The local one, The Chaperone, is based on a memorable event that took place at Rosemount High School, in east end Montreal, back in the 1970s (though I don’t think the school is named in the film.) One teacher and one DJ are the only adults at a high school dance. (In a recent radio interview, one of the filmmakers said that these days there’d be 10 teachers and eight parents or something like that.)

Anyway, scary-looking members of a motorcycle gang crash the dance. Oh, oh! Teacher Ralph Whims tells DJ Stefan to lock the doors and then proceeds to teach the bikers a lesson, so to speak, using chairs, fists, feet, etc. Just like in the movies! But it really happened! The film uses thousands of crayon drawings, puppets, stop-motion animation scenes showing the outside of the school, passing traffic, and the eventual arrival of police cars, shreds of paper from the explosions of dozens of pinatas, an hilarious live-action segment inspired by B-movies, AND a cheesy (in a good way) soundtrack inspired by blaxploitation films. There are some 3D parts, too. In other words, a bit of everything. It’s truly quite amazing. I watched it at home without the benefit of the 3D aspect, I’m sure it will be even more mind-blowing on the big screen. The film is made by Fraser Munden and Neil Rathbone. Fraser Munden knew the story well, because his father had been one of Ralph Whims’s students.Here’s a link to an article in Spectacular Optical about The Chaperone.


mynarski crop


The other Canadian short is Mynarski Death Plummet. It’s about Andrew Mynarski of Winnipeg, a gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. On June 12, 1944 his plane was badly damaged by gunfire and everyone was ordered to don their parachutes and jump from the burning plane. But Mynarski struggled through the flames to try to free tail gunner Pat Brophy, who was trapped at the back of the plane. This film blends live action and animation and ends with a fantastic creation unlike anything else I have ever seen before. The film contains 21,000 hand-painted 35 mm frames!

Here’s a quote from Greg Klymkiw’s Film Corner:

“This is such a great film. I could have watched all seven minutes of it if they’d somehow been elongated to a Dreyer-like pace and spread out over 90 minutes. That said, it’s perfect as it is. The fact that you don’t want it to end is a testament to director Matthew Rankin one of the young torchbearers (along with Astron-6) of the prairie post-modernist movement which hatched out of Winnipeg via the brilliantly demented minds of John Paizs and Guy Maddin. Blending gorgeously arcane techniques from old Hollywood, ancient government propaganda films with dollops of staggeringly, heart-achingly beautiful animation – bursting with colour and blended with superbly art-directed and costumed live action. . .”

108 Demon Kings, The Chaperone, and Mynarski Death Plummet are part of the Closing Ceremony and Awards Presentation of 2015 Montreal Animated Film Festival.
The event begins at 7 p.m., Sunday April 19, 2015 in H-110 of the Hall Building of Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve W.
Visit the website for prices and more information.