I’ve just come back from watching My People, My Homeland at my local Odeon. The film is an anthology of short stories about rural China, and it’s a follow-up to 2019’s My People, My Country. These aren’t revolutionary epics, they’re just small inspiring stories with messages woven into them.

Well done Beijing

Zhang Beijing is preparing to buy a car when his cousin arrives asking to borrow money too pay for thyroid surgery. His cousin has no medical insurance, however since Zhang is a state employee, he has state medical coverage which would allow him to get the surgery for free. The pair of them run an elaborate scam for Zhang’s cousin to impersonate him and undergo the surgery in his place. Their plan fails and eventually Zhang pays for his cousin’s surgery out of pocket, giving up on his plan to buy a car. Finally we see the cousin back in his village recovering fom the procedure. At this point he is informed that, as a rural worker, he would have been entitled to free medical coverage anyway.

I feel like the final twist would have had more of an impact if I wasn’t in a country which already had universal healthcare for the last seven decades.

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An UFO mystery

A documentary crew go to film a UFO sighting in the mountains of Guizhou province. They believe the UFO to be a hoax and after much investigation they discover it was in fact a flying craft made by an eccentric local inventor. In his youth he had fallen in love with a woman from a village on a nearby mountain, but they were separated by the difficult terrain.

At the end, he meets her, she reveals she still has feelings for him and she has been following his posts on social media. You can see there’s a message about about these two people overcoming the physical isolation of their communities, although it’s never properly developed, and the romance was far too idealistic. Also, I was expecting aliens, and this did not deliver.

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Our way home

A famous actress/model called Yan goes back to her hometown in the deserts of Inner Mongolia. Along the way she meets a slimy businessman who used to be at school with her. The businessman wants her to promote his apple business, however he repeatedly shows himself up as a con-man and Yan rejects him.

The businessman was engaged in an agroforestry scheme to push back the desert by planting orchards. It turns out the apple trees planted in sand produce bitter, horrible tasting fruit, however the trees themselves have transformed the landscape. Yan eventually sees that he has good intentions and agrees to promote the sand apples.

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Have a class

A Chinese professor is teaching in an European university, he has a stroke which causes him to enter a state of severe dementia/amnesia. He is mentally sent back to his youth when he was a schoolteacher in a village. His children take him back to China to visit his old schoolhouse, and the villagers try to recreate it as he remembered it.

He experiences flashbacks and roams around in dazed confusion, eventually his memory returns when he sees a new modern school has been built. There’s obviously a point being made about development, showing how much life in the village has improved, and it’s expressed in a very natural way. This one takes a while to get going but I ended up liking it the best.

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The magical touches

An artist called Ma Liang is invited to go to St. Petersburg to practice at a prestigious art institute. He also has the choice to go the countryside and paint scenes of rural life, however Ma’s wife is insistent he go abroad. He decides to go to the countryside and placates his wife by pretending he is in Russia.

His wife keeps his paintings in a gallery, she is proud to tell everyone he is a prominent artist, yet when she shows ordinary people his paintings they do not seem interested. Meanwhile Ma enjoys his time in the village, and in turn the villagers appreciate him. His wife calls him daily, and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain his fictional life, eventually she discovers the truth. She is angry at first, but then she understands how his art is valued by the villagers, and she forgives him.

The overall message here is good, but it was unfortunately paired with the conclusion that it’s basically okay to lie to your wife? This is the sort of uplifting tale which in reality would probably result in a divorce.

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Nobody watches Chinese films

This film earned $332 million at the box office in China, making it the third highest-grossing production in the world this year. The worldwide highest grossing film so far is The Eight Hundred - a war film about the 1937 Battle of Shanghai which made $458 million. It was a nice surprise to find My Homeland showing at the Odeon. Despite their huge popularity in China, it’s still something of a novelty to see a domestically-produced Chinese film in a British cinema.

It’s worth asking here, what does it mean for Hollywood that the most financially successful film in cinemas this year was a Chinese production for Chinese audiences? Over the summer, opinion-writers agonised over the possibility that Mulan might premiere in China before being shown in the USA. They’re uncomfortable at the idea that ‘our’ film studios might have a go at appealing to a foreign audience, and it’s not an unreasonable concern. Last year there were 41,172 cinema screens in the USA, meanwhile in China there were 69,767. Tenet has made more money from the box office in China ($66.3 million) than it has in the US ($50.6 million).

Sometimes you see criticism in the form of denouncing censorship, although behind that is the fear of losing worldwide cultural prominence. It is important to see ‘western values’ reproduced on screen. The same anxieties are present in the moral panic over TikTok, or Huawei’s 5G network infrastructure. These are real conflicts in which US influence is contested.

Empty cinemas

This evening I was the only person at the screening. It’s a big multiplex cinema, there are 12 screens, and the only other film on at the same time was Tenet. I saw two other people in the lobby, who I guess were there to see Tenet. Maybe this is normal for a Wednesday night, but it’s not a good sign for the cinema industry.

Back in September I went to watch Tenet with a friend at our local Picture House in Oxford, and just like today, we were the only people at the screening. Cineworld (who own Picture House) have since shut their cinemas, it was raised in the news on 4th October, and confirmed the following day. They haven’t said when cinemas might re-open, and it’s a grim thought that Tenet might be the last film I watched there.

I see the problem: cinemas rely on studios producing new films to show, and studios rely on cinemas remaining open to show their films. This circulation is now broken. Even where films do make it to theatres, critics and reviewers are justifiably reluctant to cover them.

In terms of theatrical releases, the major studios have released a trickle of new films since March this year:

In half a year, the giants of the film industry have only released about eleven films for showing in cinemas. For comparison, Netflix Originals released 66 films over the same period.

I have calendar notifications for interesting upcoming films, inspired by Matthieu who is super organised when it comes to tracking these things. There are a lot of great films delayed until next year, if only the cinemas haven’t disappeared by then.