Ashes of Time

New films from Hong Kong and mainland China stoke the fires of discontent

When I lived in Beijing for a brief spell in the late Nineties I got into the habit of taking long walks around the city at night--not out of any particular interest in the nocturnal landscape so much as the fact that there was nothing else to do. Aside from the bluish neon glow of all-night noodle stands and a few gloomy underground nightclubs--which, for reasons I never fully understood, were all located on military installations and run by the People's Liberation Army--the city shut down with the sun. As darkness spread, the flood of life in the streets ebbed to a trickle and an oppressive hush descended, interrupted only by isolated groups of kids breaking curfew in the city's vast, empty boulevards. Beijing was, to steal a phrase from Yeats, no country for the young; something in the character of this sprawling, aggressively ugly place seemed almost antithetical to youth. Boredom was epidemic.

Thus I am led to reflect by He Jianjun's Postman, one of 14 recent films featured in Asian Media Access's sixth annual Chinese film showcase, which runs between March 22 and April 7 at Metropolitan State University. He's film, set in a down-at-heel Beijing neighborhood ironically called the "Happiness District," conjures a wasteland as inhospitable to human life as the surface of the moon. This is, to put it mildly, a deeply pessimistic vision of modern China. And Postman also seems representative of Chinese cinema's current sour mood: These films share a melancholy air--the hangover, perhaps, from Asia's long boom.

It's worth noting that "Chinese cinema" has become a somewhat porous category in the past few years, partly because of China's (re-)
acquisition of Hong Kong, and partly because of increasing cross-germination between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the mainland. These distinct cinematic traditions have, in many cases, begun to blur into one another. And indeed, this year's showcase features films from Hong Kong (including Time and Tide, the latest from action impresario and erstwhile Jean-Claude Van Damme collaborator Tsui Hark) and Taiwan (two somber psychodramas, Ah Chung and Darkness and Light, by Hou Hsiao-hsien disciple Chang Tso-chi). Chinese cinema, as it's presented here, is less a matter of state of origin than state of mind.

Dead letter office: He Jianjun's Postman sends a dispatch from China's urban wasteland
Dead letter office: He Jianjun's Postman sends a dispatch from China's urban wasteland

At this point more than a few observers are beginning to opine that the golden moment of Asia's pop cinema has passed--even as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon confirms its appeal in the Occident. This assessment probably isn't entirely attributable to Hong Kong's mid-Nineties political limbo (nor is it entirely accurate). What's happening is more likely this: The nose-diving Asian economy, combined with a disastrous trade deficit--that is, mass importation of Hollywood product and exportation of Hong Kong's best and brightest filmmakers to the U.S.--has temporarily stalled the island's once-roaring film industry.

Which isn't to say that Hong Kong has stopped producing great cinema. Take, for instance, Durian, Durian (screening at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 24), by emerging Hong Kong new waver Fruit Chan. This film, the third in a trilogy dealing metaphorically with the politics of transition, focuses explicitly on those who live on the fast-blurring border between China and the new territories: The protagonist is a "pak gu"--a derogatory Cantonese term for a mainland Chinese woman who spends a three-month tour of booty as a prostitute in Hong Kong. In the film's early scenes, Chan returns to the kinetic free flow of his previous film, Little Cheung. Characters from the earlier film even wander through this one, as though the trilogy were one sprawling document of their intersecting lives.

Like the French New Wave filmmakers he emulates, Chan stocks his films with wonderful throwaway scenes: a boy band singing the "The Internationale" a cappella in a karaoke bar, a family trying unsuccessfully to open a durian, a spiky, foul-smelling, sweet-on-the-inside fruit that serves as a metaphor for Hong Kong. His Godardian method--the dialogue is unscripted, and the actors mostly amateurs--gives these episodes a jazzy, improvisatory feel, as though the story could spin off in any direction. Chan's films have a rambling, even disjointed, quality, particularly in the shift between frenetic Hong Kong and snow-muffled China. But they also feel true to life in a way that more structured films don't. Chan's subject here is modern Hong Kong, a history written in the present tense, and the director has developed a restless, conditional film vocabulary to tell it. Chan might be the poet of Hong Kong's anxious current moment.

There's also a darker edge to the trilogy's final installment, though: Where Little Cheung evoked the frayed nerves of Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, with everyone trying to make money and get out, Durian, Durian strikes a pensive note of accommodation. As the scene switches to the wintry moors of northern China, the film grows suddenly quieter, resolving finally in a series of near-silent tableaux. It's as though noisy, bright Hong Kong has already faded into memory.


If Hong Kong's pop cinema expresses a deep ambivalence about the future, mainland China's often seems mired in the past. To be sure, history has always weighed heavily on Chinese film. Consider the now-famous image of a soldier searching the bleached hills of Shaanxi province for China's lost folk culture in Chen Kaige's seminal 1985 film Yellow Earth. In many ways Chen's film, which launched independent Chinese cinema, also predicted its dominant theme: the struggle of the individual to reclaim the past. In reaction to China's Orwellian brand of social progress, Chinese cinema began with a Great Leap Backward.

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