“Manchurian Tiger” Paints Absurdist Picture of Working Class Life in Northern China

by Brian Hioe

Photo courtesy of Blackfin Production

This is a No Man is an Island film review written in collaboration with Cinema Escapist as part of coverage of the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival. Keep an eye out for more!

MANCHURIAN TIGER is a gem of a film, with accolades including a well-deserved Golden Goblet Award at the Shanghai International Film Festival. As its title implies, the movie is set in northeastern China, and is a black comedy about the lives of the Chinese working class.

The film follows a series of protagonists whose lives come into collision after the initial protagonist, trucker Xu Dong, tries to sell his beloved pet dog shortly before the birth of his son. Though Xu is married to a wealthy woman, Mei Ling, he is also carrying on an affair with a nurse, Xiaowei. He hopes to find an owner who will take care of the dog for him as he did, turning down multiple offers to sell it for meat.

Courtesy of Blackfin Production

Xu sells the dog to real estate salesman Ma Qianli. But, after Ma is threatened by debtors, he is forced to cook and eat the dog. This outrages Xu, who decides to take revenge for his pet. In the meantime, Ma falls into a series of misadventures involving individuals he has defrauded, or owes money to.

Regrettably, the film’s female characters seem to have little motivation except their relation to the male characters. Mei Ling and Xiaowei could easily be set up as parallel characters to Xu and Ma, but they only serve auxiliary purposes.  Besides that though, Manchurian Tiger succeeds in almost all aspects. The characters are distinctive and lively. Likewise, the film manages a distinctive aesthetic from start to finish, pairing sound and image to great effect.

Manchurian Tiger deftly interweaves its character development with its worldbuilding, creating a humorously harsh world in which everyone seems to owe a debt to or have a grudge against every individual. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, in which there are but a few scraps of happiness, and each debt seems to beget a new grudge. This is always a source of comedy in the movie, with Xu and Ma constantly on the run from a never-ending stream of assailants and challengers, each equally absurd and pathetic as the last.

Courtesy of Blackfin Production

Despite the apparent cruelty of the world, with a comically bleak worldview reminiscent of Aki Kaurismäki’s films about working-class social misfits, the protagonists of the film are still kind. This can be seen in Xu’s love for his dog or Ma’s earnest attempts to make amends to Xu after he is forced to eat the dog. This seems to be precisely why the film’s protagonists suffer, however.

Some scenes in Manchurian Tiger are particularly memorable. Examples include a monologue by Ma about how he plans to kill himself once he finishes his current stock of alcohol, or when both men reminisce about watching girls frolic in bikinis on MTV music videos when young. Another, highly metaphoric scene involves the protagonists trying to hawk books of self-authored poetry in a market for less than the price of a cigarette, but receiving few responses.

Worth remarking on is the frequent animal metaphors in Manchurian Tiger. Like in Pema Tseden’s 2011 Old Dog, the dog seems to be a metaphor for loss, as the protagonists strive to prevent it and the humane relationships it represents from becoming a commodity item. On the other hand, the titular tiger proves to be something like the elephant from Hu Bo’s 2018 An Elephant Sitting Still, as an animal that sits in a cage in a state of malaise about the world, gazed upon in a zoo by the masses.

Courtesy of Blackfin Production

Perhaps Manchurian Tiger seems to suggest the dehumanization of the Chinese working class today. They are caged tigers, kept in a cage “for their own safety”–or dogs that might be sold for meat at any time.

If Manchurian Tiger does have flaws, it is with regards to the somewhat inconsistent characterization of Xu. Xu is clearly a working-class character, but it is unclear as to why his wife married him despite being of a visibly different class background. The film may have not wanted to tell a film about only the working class, yet this strikes as an incongruent element.

Generally though, Manchurian Tiger shouldn’t be missed. The movie proves a compelling, absurdist portrait of contemporary China.