Guide to the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival

The 52nd annual Chicago International Film Festival is about to start! After reviewing the program, we’ve compiled a list of all the feature-length films that have anything to do with Chinese, China, Chinese people, or Chinese culture. Enjoy, and hope to see you there!

Mandarin-language Films

This year there are three Mandarin-language films: Crosscurrent, Utopians, and Dog Days.

长江图 (Crosscurrent)

Synopsis: A visually stunning odyssey traversing China’s Yangtze River, Crosscurrent follows a boat captain who sails upstream to the famed waterway’s source. Over repeated encounters with a beautiful woman who appears younger at each port, it becomes clear the shipman’s journey is taking him back in time through Chinese history. Shot on 35mm film by the celebrated cinematographer of The Assassin, this painterly masterpiece won a top prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Worth watching? Art film lovers should give this a shot. People who aren’t much into art films should probably avoid this movie; reports have it that the plot is extremely obtuse.
Showtimes: MON 10/24 8:45 pm, WED 10/26 5:30 pm

同流合乌 (Utopians: Director’s Cut)

Synopsis: Notorious queer-cinema provocateur SCUD, the Festival’s first-ever Q Hugo honoree, has long shaken up Hong Kong society with sexually and thematically explicit features. His latest keeps up the wild streak. A young, sheltered college student finds himself drawn to his openly gay professor, who freely quotes Greek philosophers in class and soon introduces him to a new, utopian world of possibility. With SCUD’s fearless, anything-goes filmmaking style, these two men liberate each other’s desires.
Worth watching? There’s not much information about this film online. All we can tell you is don’t take your kids to see it.
Showtimes: FRI 10/14 10:30 pm, TUE 10/18 9:45 pm

三伏天 (Dog Days)

Synopsis: In an impoverished Chinese suburb, nightclub dancer Lulu returns home to find her boyfriend and their infant child have gone missing. Stopping at nothing to find her son, she enlists the help of a drag queen at a local cabaret who knows more than he’s letting on. Lulu traverses the dark underbellies of modern Chinese society in her desperate search to recover her child in this bold, harrowing debut feature.
Worth watching? Douban Movie has an average rating of 4.5 for this movie, which is not terribly encouraging. We’ve never heard of American director Jordan Schiele before, although this is far from the only Chinese-language movie he’s directed in his career.
Showtimes: MON 10/25 6:15 pm, WED 10/26 8:00 pm

Films Set in China

This year the festival has one movie set in Tibet: Soul on a String.

皮绳上的魂 (Soul on a String)

Synopsis: After discovering a sacred stone in the mouth of a deer, Taibei, a lone Tibetan cowboy, embarks on a spiritual quest: to bring it back to a holy mountain. On the way, he encounters a passionate woman, a mute with psychic powers, and two vengeful brothers. With gorgeous, sweeping cinematography of Tibet’s majestic steppes and sprawling deserts, this unconventional Asian Western pairs swordfights with the Buddhist philosophy of letting go.
Worth watching? Douban Movie has an average rating of 5.6 for this movie, which suggests it’s probably just OK. For some reason, we couldn’t find a trailer for this movie. The festival selection committee apparently has high hopes for this movie, though, as it has three showtimes. We should note that there is some Mandarin spoken in this movie, but most of the dialogue is probably in Tibetan.
Showtimes: SAT 10/22 2:00 pm, SUN 10/23 5:00 pm, MON 10:24 12:00 pm

Films About Chinese-Americans

Shockingly, there are two movies about Chinese-Americans: Random Acts of Legacy and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Random Acts of Legacy

Synopsis: A rare and illuminating glimpse of midcentury American life, this touching documentary introduces us to a unique Chicago family. From the 1930s on, first-generation Chinese immigrant Silas Fung captured his family’s bourgeois life in copious 16mm home movies. The Fungs fervently embraced their adopted home, from fried-chicken picnics to an obsession with the 1933 World’s Fair. The American family, the film implies, fits no single image.
Worth watching? This film was made by an Indian-born Canadian film maker, about a Chinese-American family in Chicago who moved here in the 1930s. That’s certainly pretty novel.
Showtimes: WED 10/19 8:15 pm, THU 10/20 2:00 pm

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Synopsis: From acclaimed Chicago filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) comes a saga of the immigrant Sung family, owners of Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown. Accused of mortgage fraud, the Sungs must defend themselves and their dignity. This high-stakes courtroom documentary screens as part of Kartemquin Films’ 50th anniversary.
Worth watching? The Hoop Dreams guy directed this! Everyone go see this.
Showtimes: TUE 10/18 6:00 pm

Other Notable Films

Here we list some other films in the 2016 program that might deserve your attention, although they don’t have anything to do with China.


Notes: From the director of The Raid. A stabby good time.
SAT 10/22 10:30 pm, WED 10/26 8:30 pm

The Handmaiden

Notes: From the director of Oldboy. Bad things happening to bad people, stylishly.
SUN 10/23 8:15 pm, TUE 10/25 8:30 pm

The Eagle Huntress

Notes: Almost certainly the most stunning documentary at the festival.
SAT 10/22 5:15 pm

Girls Don’t Fly

Notes: Looks intriguing.
SUN 10/16 2:15 pm, TUE 10/18 3:00 pm