China, Drama, Films, Recommended posts, Reviews


Although an ambitious project, remains an uneven albeit interesting experiment of the young filmmaker Sun Liang…

In How to not write a short film, Sundance programmer Roberta Marie Munroe explains why 40-minute short films can never work. It all boils down to script structure and the impossible task of keeping the right focus, one of the most difficult tasks for young and/or starting directors. Alive, although ‘only’ 27 minutes long, seems to have all the symptoms of the 40-minute-short-syndrome Munroe described. It remains a bold and ambitious attempt of 24-year old director Sun Liang to cram as much material as possible in half an hour. In the end, however, Alive feels uneven, unfocused and, above all, unfinished.

What starts of as a mildly interesting but clichéd set-up of a poor youngster named Laizi working for his uncle in order to buy a gift for his homecoming parents, ends in an enigmatic climax, leaving the viewer behind with a mixture of feelings. Confusion and the overwhelming feeling that you’ve seen this all before may very well be one’s main reaction after watching this short at the 2015 Chinese Visual Festival in London.

Not that Alive has an uneventful plot, on the contrary. After Laizi lost his uncle’s goods to a local petty thief, he goes on a mission to retrieve the merchandise. In the meanwhile, his friend and co-worker seems to have a relationship with a young prostitute. He’s infatuated by her and is convinced he found his true love, even when the next in line is waiting outside the shabby hotel room when he spends his (costly) lasts minutes with her. It’s the best scene in the film, although it’s unsure why Liang even wrote it in his script. Even less than a minute later we switch to beating up the petty thief who stole the goods from Laizi. And oh, there’s also a subplot about the uncle’s son stealing from his own father. He yells at him, he yells back and the son – he’s a teenager after all – leaves in a temper. All this is happening without any room for character development. After a while, you’re just registering the events on screen rather than caring about the outcome of all this mayhem.

There’s a lot of potential and the raw energy is certainly there, but the poor visual execution, awkward acting and mediocre writing makes it a rough diamond. There’s just too much going on, making it near to impossible to even care about anything that happens to our protagonist. One can only wonder what a marvellous short Alive could be if Liang only focused on the story of the prostitute and trim the fat until the picture has a runtime of no more than 15 minutes. There’s no visual feast either: Alive goes for a very distinct documentary-style look, but some scenes look more like a first rough cut than a finished product. Of course, one could argue that this is all on purpose and a style in and of itself, which is true. Still, the cutting, pacing and cinematography lack the confidence of, let’s say, Jin Ye’s masterpiece Today My Mother Will Get Married, which is very similar in style and tone.

Yes, it is an ambitious and bold project to tackle for a young director. But let’s not forget that being overambitious is, sometimes, the seed for mediocrity.

Alive will be screened at the Chinese Visual Festival at the Nash Theatre, King’s College (London). You can buy your tickets here.

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Andrew Heskins
Founder of, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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