Film Review: The One Who Runs Away Is The Ghost

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Art & Culture
Written by Chloé Raunet

An atmospheric film emigration and the evasive notion of ‘home’ leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

Hugged by a 108 kms-long, barbed-wire fence, the Shenzhen skyline shoots up like a crystal forest. Home to over 13 million, with the highest number of millionaires per capita in China, this ultra-modern megalopolis was originally a sleepy little fishing town of 30,000. Most of its residents lived in poverty, but they were about to ‘hit the jackpot’. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping selected it to be the country’s first Special Economic Zone.

As the door to The Red Dragon cracked open, the city swelled. Foreign manufacturers rushed in, eager to take advantage of a river of cheap-labour-rural-migrants. These workers, including The One Who Runs Away Is The Ghost director Qinyuan Lei’s parents, have become the driving force behind Shenzhen’s reinvention of itself as the ‘city of hardware innovation’.



Officially, The One Who Runs Away Is The Ghost is an intimate, poetic meditation on childhood, displacement and urban metamorphosis. It is set in Huaqiangbei, a market once known for its counterfeit products, now deemed the centre of electronics production.

The documentary follows two sisters, 5-year-old Haohao and 8-year-old Zhouzhou, whose parents recently opened a gadget shop. The girls spend their days freely, playing around the store and exploring the building. Empty rooms are full of secrets, ghosts live in the vending machine and imaginations run wild. Stomps and laughter echo down the staircase as the kids run up to the roof garden, a forbidden space at the edge of their universe.

Qinyuan Lei also spent her childhood in the market but always felt the tug to leave, moving abroad at 19. Her voice laps over their tiny adventures, reminiscing on her own experiences and sharing innocuous, dream-like observations. There’s no direct interaction between filmmaker and subject but the girls draw her and the camera into their play, implying Quinyuan Lei’s disembodied presence is a phantom in the narrative.

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Undeniably this atmospheric film is about emigration and the evasive notion of ‘home’, but The One Who Runs Away Is The Ghost leaves plenty of room for interpretation.


Undeniably this atmospheric film is about emigration and the evasive notion of ‘home’, but The One Who Runs Away Is The Ghost leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

In one scene Zhouzhou’s attention shifts between a telly (remarkably, the only hint of a screen in the entire movie), a pink fan and a handful of sunflower seeds. She picks through the pile. Cartoon voices bark off-screen, ‘There’s fake stuff everywhere in this world … It’s your fault you can’t recognise them … Come with me and abide by the law from now on’. It doesn’t take much to connect this to Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, an installation expressing his views on mass production and individualism (the latter being somewhat of a difficult subject in China).

It’s in these moments, when more risky observations cut through the soothingly conventional cinematography and inoffensive soundtrack, that The One Who Runs Away Is The Ghost is most interesting.

Qinyuan Lei is now back in Shenzhen-Hong Kong, teaching and making films so I’m guessing her debut documentary hasn’t rustled many feathers. Following a long lineage of filmmakers navigating censorship, let’s where she goes next as a bolder, more confident mainland China tightens its cultural grip on the region.

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Screening February 2nd, 2024 @MINT Chinese Film Festival in Keswick, UK

MINT is the UK’s first women-organised Chinese film festival focussed on cross-cultural communication and women’s representations in films.

Video On Demand from Feb 13

Soundtrack by Hainback released by Seil Records digital and on cassette: March 1st