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starting over: new chinese cinema

mike walsh: hong kong film festival

Mike Walsh lectures in the Screen & Media Department at Flinders University, Adelaide.


A broad division has recently emerged between the medieval epics beloved of commercial filmmaking (think Zhang Yimou’s films) and low budget, socially oppositional films (like Jia Zhangke films). While the latter form has been vitally important, lately it has seemed to congeal into a formula in which sleazy, chain-smoking slackers in dingy urban backwaters encapsulate filmmakers’ critique of the spiritual void of the market economy. This year’s Hong Kong Film Festival provided rich material for a contemplation of the ways in which Chinese cinema is struggling to refresh this critique.

sun spots

Sun Spots by Yang Heng is another of the long take, distant framing tableau films which follow in the footsteps of Hou Hsaio-hsien and Jia Zhangke (Jia’s cinematographer Yu Likwai is listed as associate producer). The intriguing thing about the film is its wilful incommunicativeness. It doesn’t tell a story so much as establish figures expressive of their surroundings. In the opening shot, a man lies on the road after a motorcycle accident in front of a bulldozer: a stricken figure in a stricken landscape. Another tableau indicates that the chain-smoking in these films simply reflects the surroundings where chimneys constantly spew out smoke.

Not only are scenes mostly wordless, but the characters are often framed with their backs to the camera. At key moments, such as the final shot, they simply disappear into the depths of the frame. These tactics are not new; in fact you associate them with Mizoguchi in the 1930s. In those films they were employed as distancing devices that functioned to push you back out of the melodrama, but here they are part of a larger indifference or refusal. Just as the characters drift along in a world lacking purpose, this film offers us nothing more than two hours of repeated action which points to no deep interior psychologies on the part of the characters. The point is that there’s no point—that’s all there is. In America this might turn into Easy Rider, but here it just wallows in its own sense of social torpor.

The High Life The High Life
the high life

Sun Spots and Zhao Dayong’s The High Life shared the main prizes at the HK festival. The High Life similarly starts out from the standard Jia Zhangke story. The familiar cast of characters is present: the small-time lowlife, the slutty girlfriend, the neighbourhood boss. However, the opening scene gives us an indication that things might not be so simple: a group of women in a prison work at sweatshop labour while one of them recites an increasingly bizarre and incendiary poem.

It’s another hour before we return to this location and these characters but the scene is emblematic of the film’s strategies. Characters enter and then leave the narrative, frustrating our attempt to approach contemporary China in exclusively personal terms. It is worth comparing this to the structure of Zhao’s previous documentary Ghost Town (see Dan Edwards’ account, RT94, p22) which is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different character.

There is also an insistence in the opening scene that despite the culturally debased conditions of everyday life in China, art is the repressed which somehow finds a way to return. The small-time swindler retreats to his rooftop each evening to practice opera performance styles and the superintendent of a prison insists that prisoners recite his subversive poetry.

Apart Together Apart Together
apart together

The most impressive fiction film from China (see the articles on page 16 and RT96, p15 on the documentaries which are rapidly emerging as a key component of Chinese cinema) was Wang Quanan’s Apart Together which derives from the unfashionable humanist middle-ground of Chinese cinema. It is not a star-driven genre film, and neither is it the kind of grungy miserabilist film beloved of international festivals.

Set against the backdrop of the tentative reconciliation of Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, this is the story of a Kuomintang soldier who returns to Shanghai, to the sweetheart he abandoned 60 years ago, now living with her new husband and family. Thankfully what follows can’t be reduced to allegory. Instead we see how personal stories carry the weight of a wider politics. It is a funny, deeply observant and beautifully acted study of how history has made strangers of people who need to rediscover their cultural commonalities.

Chinese people talk to each other through and over food, and so the film concentrates mainly on a number of set pieces around dinner tables. Alcohol, popular song and sentimentality are the pillars on which the drama is elaborated in simply observed, long takes which allow for some ferociously good ensemble performances. History is a large and complicated business. Life is uncertain but so long as there is food on the table and people around it, that is all you can ask for, and that is enough.

Liu Jiayin, Oxhide 2 Liu Jiayin, Oxhide 2
oxhide 2

Food is never far from the foreground of Chinese films and Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide 2 (Sandy Cameron wrote an appreciation of the first in 2005; RT67, p22) centres on the making and consumption of a meal of dumplings. This is a reworking of the earlier film to see if its restrictions can be pushed even further. Oxhide contained 23 shots but this time Liu Jiayin gets it down to nine with each shot averaging 15 minutes. These are all taken in a single room of a cramped apartment with a static, locked-off camera—Liu appears in front of the camera while shooting it. The use of a widescreen aspect ratio extends the restrictiveness of the formal strategies by excluding characters’ heads for long chunks of time.

In some ways this is the ultimate work of everyday realism—until you realise that the action is carefully composed and staged. As with her previous film, Liu’s performers are her parents and herself, and the film shows them talking, squabbling and cooking together in real time and in their own home. As with any good work of minimalism, you pare down the elements so that small things assume larger impact. When the mother appears in the deep background of the first shot, it is quite thrilling to see that a door is suddenly revealed. When the father’s head lurches unexpectedly into the foreground of the frame, I recoiled more strongly than at any point in Mr Cameron’s turgid 3D nonsense.

one night in the supermarket

Finally, what’s the news from China’s commercial cinema? Yang Qing’s One Night in the Supermarket is an attempt to find, and cash in on, viable contemporary genres. Screwball comedy has worked well for South Korea—this reworks Attack the Gas Station—and it’s a big improvement over the medieval hack and slash epics which have carved an increasingly leaden path through Chinese cinema.

The model for imitation here is Ning Hao’s Crazy Racer from last year. We have bumbling crooks, larger than life characterisations in which eyeballs are constantly bugging out of heads, flashy transitions and intrusive camera and editing effects. One of the lead actors is even imported from Crazy Racer to get the narrative moving. A couple of disgruntled guys hold up an all-night convenience store and, predictably, things go wrong and draw in an increasing number of eccentric locals. This is painless enough but it’s nowhere near as funny as it ought to be. The performers’ heavy handed mugging will give you even greater appreciation for Ning Hao’s style of comedy.

Why care about it? As our media pound us with the one-dimensional picture of China as a grey, totalitarian place, it seems more important to get an insight into what makes the Chinese laugh. Creating comedy appears to be a more urgent task than adding yet another critique of an aimless and souless modern China.

Mike Walsh lectures in the Screen & Media Department at Flinders University, Adelaide.

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 15

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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