Directed by: #JiaWeiCheng
Short Film Review by: #ChrisBuick
Chinese #shortfilm Under the Flag is the extremely sophisticated and unapologetically frank story of Yiyi (Michelle Jia Cheng), one of several aspiring young students at a prestigious dance academy, who finally lands the lead part in an upcoming performance she’s been working tirelessly to make her own. But as talented and ultimately deserving as Yiyi might be, she discovers her triumph has in fact not been gained on merit alone, but rather by the substantial bribe her mother (Lei) has bestowed upon her instructor (Chang).
Under the Flag marks only the second major project from writer and director JiaWei Cheng, a fact which is almost unbelievable given the outstanding and assured levels of filmmaking at play here; one would believe it to be work of a filmmaker with decades of experience. Cheng’s first film New Year gained a number of plaudits and nominations back in 2017 and now Under the Flag has deservedly followed suit, most notably winning Best Short Film at the Lift-Off Film Festival in Tokyo.
What’s most evident about Cheng as a filmmaker is her innate ability to tell stories that don’t just entertain or incite drama, but provoke a well of afterthought and wider discussion. Cheng and co-writer Dhruv Kanungo’s razor-sharp screenplay does all that here and then some, raising a plethora of very pertinent questions. How far can talent, hard work and desire really get someone before it’s simply not enough? Life, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, is quite often not a level playing field and Yiyi’s mothers' words to her in a pivotal part of the film don’t just elegantly sum up the viewpoint Under the Flag is putting forward in this film, but the harsh and unspoken reality of the kind of inherently corrupt systems we are all equally beholden to but also at times complicit in perpetuating.
“You think all you need to do is dance?”
It’s a theme that is fully represented from all perspectives by a cast of accomplished performances, each representing different links in the chain of such a system. Grace Chang’s Xiao, Yiyi’s unsympathetic instructor, is the very much the face of that system, brilliantly personifying the insurmountable tide Yiyi and the rest of our competitors are swimming against. Lei, equally outstanding, symbolises those who have been ultimately worn down by that system, who know how the game is played and therefore feel justified in their actions because that’s simply how things work.
But its Michelle Jia Cheng as Yiyi, realising for the first time what it truly takes to get ahead, who really shines, the highly competent actors masterful expressions meaning we don’t just see the moral conflict that torments Yiyi throughout the film, but feel it every time she forces a smile in the mirror or shies away from praise she believes she hasn’t earned.
Last and by absolutely no means least is how simply beautiful the film is to look at. Cinematographer Leo Purman’s exceptional camerawork married with the very astute editing from Yiqing Yu, deserving of her Best Editing award at the Independent Short Awards, make this film sing and allows Under the Flag to become a story told not in words but in the faces of the characters, the dance sequences especially punctuating each of the films narrative beats.
Infinitely commendable on all levels, Under the Flag is a truly accomplished passion project that will stick you with you long after for all the right reasons.
Watch the trailer for Under the Flag below. You can also read our filmmaker interview with editor Yiqing Yu here