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.

China's so-called Fifth Generation--Chen, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang--was forged by historical circumstance: All three filmmakers were "sent down" for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution and later studied together at the Beijing Film Academy. They were united also by their continuing unstable relationship with China's political establishment. Yet, at least during the past decade, the government has dealt with these directors less as dissidents than as wayward children--complete with the political equivalent of sending them to their rooms (i.e., refusing to let them screen at international film festivals). In fact, the marketplace has proven a far more efficient censor than the government. After years of blistering (and banned) social criticism, Chen and his fellows have begun to attract--and, some argue, actively court--foreign audiences by turning to lush period melodramas (Farewell My Concubine et al.) that seem increasingly irrelevant to China's present.

As the Fifth Generation introduces Chinese cinema to the world, though, a new generation of post-Tiananmen filmmakers has emerged in China's teeming capital. This group--rather uncreatively labeled the Sixth Generation--includes Wang Xiaushuai, Jia Zhangke (whose 1997 film, Xiao Wu, screens 5:00 p.m. Saturday, March 24), and Zhang Yuan. In contrast to gorgeous historical soap operas like Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern, their work is urban in subject, flamboyantly subversive in tone, and realist in style. If the defining image of the Fifth Generation was the rural landscape of Chen's Yellow Earth--in which a soldier, reduced to the size of an ant, searches China's wasteland for lost folk history--the seminal image of the new generation might be a tank rolling over a teenager.

The aforementioned Postman (7:00 p.m. Saturday, March 24 and 9:00 p.m. Friday, April 6) is a good example of the Sixth Generation's emerging modernist sensibility. Though it is only He's second feature--his first, 1993's Red Beads, was directed pseudonymously--he is a permanent fixture of China's independent cinema (He has, over the course of his career, worked with Chen, Zhang Yimou, and Tian). The visual texture of Postman does owe a great deal to the formal technique of the Fifth Generation. But He is also closely attuned to the air of modern Beijing: The city's literal atmosphere, a thick cloud bank of pollution, gives the light a peculiar, diffuse quality, as though everything were buried beneath a stratum of yellow dust. He lets his camera roam through this wasteland, with its broad streets and featureless apartment buildings, observing the city's stagnation with almost clinical detachment. Humans are never the focus of his compositions; instead, his camera lingers in empty rooms after the inhabitants have exited. Seen through He's unflinching lens, the city becomes a graveyard for the living.

Postman's subject also reflects urban alienation: A young, Bartleby-like postal worker begins reading people's mail and infiltrating their troubled lives. What begins as curiosity--a human gesture in a world indifferent to human feeling--turns into something more enigmatic. The postman becomes the embodiment of the filmmaker, picking through life's ash heap for material. One scene in particular seems to capture He's drift. The protagonist's sister, with whom he is sharing an apartment (and possibly a bed), recalls a childhood episode during which the two of them sneaked into a farmer's orchard to steal peaches. The farmer, she tells him, later had his orchard appropriated by the government, and he ended up destitute, telling fortunes on the street. In He's China, such is the bitter fruit of human labor. Later the theme is echoed in an intercepted suicide note: "There's too many of us. The world doesn't need us."

Postman has been banned, of course. (Any film dealing with contemporary China is declared subversive almost as a matter of course.) Censorship notwithstanding, however, independent filmmakers like He seem to be thriving. They operate at the periphery of Chinese society, shooting without permits or official sanction and smuggling their prints out of the country for postproduction. There's a devil-may-care spirit among this new breed of auteur that the Fifth Generation, who always had the weight of history on its shoulders, never shared.

Consider the youthful esprit of In the Heat of the Sun (7:00 p.m. Thursday, March 22 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29), directed by young Beijing auteur Jiang Wen and based on a bildungsroman by expatriate author Wang Shuo. Set during the Cultural Revolution, Jiang's film bears some resemblance to the sweeping historical fictions of the Fifth Generation--most particularly Tian's The Blue Kite. Yet where that film subordinated the personal to the political, Jiang dispenses with politics almost altogether. Here the Cultural Revolution is less a collective trauma than a colorful backdrop to a summery Proustian idyll. Gossamer sunlight washes every frame as the film's narrator, an innocent-faced rapscallion called Monkey, causes mischief with his friends and pursues his Odette, an older girl from the neighborhood.

Though political upheaval is the film's context, it is no more central to the story than the furniture. Indeed, In the Heat of the Sun is less about the sweep of history than the texture of memory. It's also a celebration of cinema's power to hold time still: In the film's climactic moment, the story stops and actually begins to run in reverse, suggesting an infinitude of possible futures. "I can't tell what's real from what's remembered," the narrator explains. "Change has wiped out my memories." Jiang, who was still in diapers when the Cultural Revolution began, suggests that, at least in the realm of the cinema, what's imagined and what's remembered are often the same.

 

Asian Media Access's sixth annual Chinese Film Showcase runs through April 7 at Metropolitan State University; (612) 376-7715; www.amamedia.org.

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