VCFF 2023: Looking China

Although I’ve had the distinct pleasure of attending various events of the long-running Vancouver Chinese Film Festival in the past (including opening galas, award ceremonies, and even a boat cruise!), I hadn’t yet had the chance to sample one of their core programs until this year. 

“Looking China” is a program where multiple international filmmakers (mostly Canadian, but also from countries like the US and Jamaica) are sent to China to make short documentaries on various aspects of Chinese culture. The filmmakers choose the topic (food, architecture, folk traditions, etc.) and are then assigned specific subjects and locations. They are then teamed up with a local Chinese producer fresh from one of China’s many film schools, assigned a local crew and interpreters, then set loose to shoot, record, and edit their films in 17 days.

This year’s program focused on the southwest region of China where production occurred in April. The results were recently screened here in Vancouver at the Orpheum Annex Theatre with three of the filmmakers in attendance and will go on to screen at various film festivals worldwide.


Legends of Songi (d. Kalev Mercury Nikolas Matsui)

When people think of modern China, their minds tend to turn to images of the ever-futuristic Shanghai skyline or the bullet trains criss-crossing the world’s third largest country. But despite rampant modernization, there are still pockets of the country that retain their ancient flavour. 

Enter Songji, an ancient town southwest of Chongqing. Told partially by a local storyteller, this film is a rapid-fire overview of the various aspects of life in a town where time almost stands still. From cultural treasures (Nine Great Bowls) to architecture (Jade Emperor Temple) to the tradition of a town crier warning citizens against leaving open candles in dry weather, the film covers almost too much ground for its limited running time, but intrigues the audience enough for them to add Songji as a destination for their next China vacation and perhaps a call for for its younger citizens to recognize the value of an ancient place over the fast-paced city life.


The Yang Descendance (d. Zoe Hertz)

This next film focuses on a single building in Chongqing’s Tongnan district, the grand Yang house which took twelve years(!) to build in the 19th century (1878-1890). Adorned with rich wooden carvings and ample courtyard space, the house was designed in such a way that the further into it you were allowed to go, the higher your status, with only a select few allowed to go all the way to the back. So it was in the Qing dynasty. 

It’s a different flavour of decadence than you’re likely to see in contemporary mansions and the local heritage expert interviewed here takes great pride in the fact that such an architectural artefact is still standing in modern China. A solid little film that will leave you wondering about your own home’s feng shui.


(What’s) in a Pickle? (d. Dee Spuriel)

While most of the filmmakers are content to remain in off-screen voiceover, director Dee Spuriel plants himself firmly in this narrative as a man on a mission to track down the Fuling Pickle. While he is too late for the annual pickle harvest, he is able to tour the local pickle plant and also befriends local picklemaker Zuo and her family including her adorable young son Guo Yiming. Many spicy pickles are sampled and Spuriel learns the importance of the pickle trade to the Fuling community.

Even though Spuriel would’ve been wise to include a clearer explanation of the eponymous pickles themselves (or even just a close-up of the delicacy), his film ultimately scores points as a warm and fuzzy postcard from Fuling and easily goes the furthest out of the bunch to show the impact this whole cultural exchange program has on the actual filmmakers themselves. 


Dragon Dance (d. Adam Mahmmood)

Adam Mahmmood is the second director to cast himself in front of the camera as a young man looking to learn the titular dragon dance from a master in the ancient town of Pianyan. This Miyagi/Daniel-San relationship forms the core of a film that is about more than just a town that throws dragon dances to ward off bad weather.

The film also touches on the rather nebulous concept of “Ren”, which from what I can gather is a sort of code to live by, emphasizing one’s righteousness, wisdom, and overall humanity. While I feel Mahmmood could have spent more time more firmly establishing this concept, one must give him credit for putting his body out there attempting to learn dragon dancing in the doubtlessly short time allotted to him.


Sifu Zhang and His Magic Fish (d. Isaac Liam Innocente Koenig-Workman)

There are some recipes you just can’t export as there is a certain local “magic” in the combination of salt and herbs that the eponymous Sifu uses in his grilled fish in Wuxi. The magic in question is “Wu”, described as local “witchcraft and wizardry” by the narrator and who am I to say that it isn’t? Sometimes outstanding culinary skill is its own magic.

Unlike the previous two directors, Koenig-Workman features himself mostly in an extended-cameo capacity, observing and enjoying the unique flavours on offer. I noticed more poorly-lit interior shots in this doc than the others, though given the hectic nature of documentary filmmaking, this may be a feature rather than a bug. In any case, the film is a pleasant reminder to always sample the local delicacy while travelling. You can always get McDonalds at home.


The Weight of the Voice (d. Teo Obre)

One of the challenges of fostering a national identity is the risk of losing the myriad of unique folk traditions that define a particular region and its culture. Anyone willing to look beneath the surface will swiftly realise that China is no cultural monolith, consisting of countless local traditions and dialects.

Ombre’s film zeroes in on the Tujia and Miao people in the village of Houping and their efforts to ensure the continuation of their ancient folk songs and dances, particularly through the transmission of knowledge to younger generations. The songs can contain historical narratives, stories of love, or simply doses of wisdom. 

A decent, if too-short primer on the importance of links to our cultural past, the film ends on a sobering note, musing how only so many songs get selected for publication while many more may inevitably be lost to the river of time.


The Tree Listens (d. Evan Luchkow)

Easily my favourite film of the bunch, veteran Looking China director Evan Luchow brings a much more measured pace to this film about a tea tree in the Nanchuan Jinfo Mountain area. Casting the tea tree itself as narrator, the film relates the story of a 2700 ancient tea tree from its birth, to the discovery of its tea-making properties, to the protection it now enjoys by passionate locals.

The Tree Listens shows a maturity and patience that the other films seem to lack, most of them seemingly desperate to cram as many shots and things as their short runtimes will allow. Luchow’s film actually finds ample room to breathe and is all the better for it.

Vancouver Chinese Film Festival will hold its closing awards ceremony at the Michael J Fox Theatre in Burnaby on Sept 17 @ 7pm

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