Springtime in a Small Town

Toronto International Film Festival, 4-14 September 2002

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) affords an opportunity akin to an annual check-up of world cinema culture, in all its variety – film as entertainment, film as art, and film as politics. Its breadth is extraordinary, incorporating state-of-the-art mini-surveys of national cinemas, massive Hollywood-sponsored marketing blitzes of prestige pictures, “best of” samplings from the previous year’s film festival circuit – all compressed into one space at one time, for ten days in Toronto.

Last year’s Festival was disrupted by September 11, an event which, for TIFF at least, threw into sharp relief the debate concerning film as politics. The mainstream commentators worried how “we” could continue watching mere cinema in the shadow of that shocking event. This reinforced an already well-entrenched ideological viewpoint, which denigrates film culture’s potential plurality by insisting that film only be received, read, positioned and defined as either art or entertainment, never as politics. Such a viewpoint asserts that cinema can do only one of two things: either function as autonomous art, in a purely aesthetic, self-referential world defined by form and style; or function as consumable escapism, release, and pleasure, with a price tag. What’s missing? A conception of cinema as a discourse actively engaged with the world, a function that is shuttled off to one side as if it were something vaguely embarrassing. A cinematic discourse that is political, that has urgent things to say about the world, can of course point in many directions. It can affirm anaesthetically comforting ways of pretending not to see. It can identify painfully troubling conditions or events and seek to soothe, to offer solace. Or it can underline or embody social/political problems (point to explicitly, or model implicitly), exposing what seems intolerable, or artfully transmuting the urgency of crises and contradictions into troublingly beautiful new ways of seeing, ways that take us by surprise, grab us with their beauty or power or novelty.

I will try to use this framework to discuss several interesting Chinese language films shown at TIFF 2002. East Asia is a region whose recent cinemas were initially received openly, and eagerly, as cultural interventions in the powerful political changes that embroiled these countries (Korean and Taiwanese democratization, a gradual opening up of mainland China long under severe political repression). Once “new waves” from these countries were identified, legitimizing the (often valiant, sometimes sceptical) gate-keepers’ attempts to scratch out a bit of space for each in the canon of contemporary world cinema, reception of these films outside their own countries has changed. There has been a tendency, growing more dominant, to either commodify or aestheticize new East Asian cinemas: either a Miramax who tries to create another potential Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or a Film Comment-style piece that treats a film as pure art, pinpointing it in a matrix whose axes consist only of style, form, and narrative content. Maybe that’s the price of joining the club. The advantages, after all, are of fundamental importance: films as commodities get financing, get made. And films as art get noticed, discussed, programmed, and have something like a viable life on the film festival circuit. The question, then, is how much cinema this dual system obscures, what’s lost or marginalized, what’s at best tolerated, like a slightly disreputable party guest whom all the glossy, successful partiers conspire benignly to ignore.

Unknown Pleasures

TIFF’s selection of films from mainland China displayed an impressively wide range of ways of engaging with the world around them. This is at least partly due to the new energy that Giovanna Fulvi, TIFF’s new programmer of Asian Cinema, brought to her corner of the Festival. I can’t remember seeing a more representatively broad range of films from the PRC in Toronto: six features in all, plus two documentaries. At the head of the list was Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, 2002), a poetic, ruminative drama about two dead-end young drifters (Xiao Ji and Binbin) and a professional dancer (Qiaoqiao) mired in a provincial backwater. The backwater is Datong, a city near Mongolia noted now for vast, idle state owned factories. Xiao Ji’s sullen slacker affectations, decorated with a subdued panache, fail to contain a sudden reckless love he catches (like you or I might catch a flu) for gorgeous Qiaoqiao, who has sold her art to a liquor promoter with gangster connections (her sublime minority dance routines are staged to attract potential customers to Mongolian King Liquor). Xiao Ji’s best friend Binbin is likewise unemployed. His glum earnestness is no match for his high school sweetheart Yuanyuan, on a fast track to university in Beijing. She’s headed somewhere, and he’s headed nowhere, vectors pulling apart that their relationship can’t contain. Events on the surface of China’s political life in 2001 constantly intrude via televised news reports: the Falun Gong arrests, the shooting down of a US military plane, Beijing winning the 2008 Olympics. Bits of violence burst into the narrative: a mysterious explosion hits a factory; a bank hold-up with fake explosives is interrupted. But the film’s real subject concerns movement and stasis, progress or stalled oblivion.

Jia’s masterpiece Platform (Zhantai, 2000) was about Time: its epic reach showed its characters mired in, caught by a sense of time passing and changing that they could barely cope with. Unknown Pleasures, Platform‘s companion piece, is obsessed with Space. Its model of China today is made up of a series of brilliantly staged public spaces. Its dynamic is its characters’ struggles to carve temporary, fragile private spaces out of the collapsing public space that post-communist China can no longer sustain. Its most potent and ambivalent symbol is the vast bus station/pool hall/community centre where much of the action is set. A concrete-ribbed warehouse, dark, decayed-utilitarian, full of empty air and echoes, colonized for public (gambling, loan sharking) and private purposes by city dwellers who seem, despite their ingenuity and industry, completely dwarfed by and lost in the vastness of the space. Jia’s newest intervention into the politics of China’s culture offers a precisely shot, re-visualized sense of space under enormous social pressure. One of the most exhilarating and liberating experiences I know in cinema today is watching Jia’s constantly evolving cinematic language as it continues to invent new ways for us to see.

Chicken Poets

Chicken Poets (Xiang jimao yiyang fei, 2002), the first feature by renowned experimental theatre director Meng Jinghui, is a dreamlike meditation on the power of art and money, a neo-romantic portrait of a Faustian artist-hero, and an acid-tongued satirical portrait of a Chinese society undergoing rapid, destabilizing change. The hero, a poet who’s lost the ability to write, arrives in Beijing to help his entrepreneurial-minded friend market black chicken eggs (apparently the solution to all of China’s nutritional problems). Tempted by a black market CD-ROM that offers a spectacularly effective “how to write poetry” kit, he becomes a publishing and marketing star. Chicken Poets offers a kaleidoscopic series of images, animated, digitally processed, colour shifted, manipulated in every possible way, that both mirror the hero’s state of mind and mock the allure of slick success. Main actors Chen Jianbin (as the poet) and Qin Hailu (his muse) are superb: both bring warmth, nuance, and authority to the spare characterizations that the script provides. Chicken Poet‘s high points are two set pieces (the film is in fact constructed as a series of set pieces, which perhaps explains why it never becomes more than the sum of its impressive parts): Chen’s bravura theatrical incantations of a poetic text, and Qin’s magical three-minute music video “Yanse”.

It is not a little disconcerting to realize with how much facility Chicken Poets negotiates the chasm between art cinema and commodity: it wants to be both a vital contribution to the thriving Chinese art avant-garde scene and marketable cinema sanctioned by a state-owned film company and approved by the PRC film bureau. I haven’t seen a more easily consumable film that comes wrapped in avant-garde trappings. Although there is plenty of playful fun in the non-narrative excursions through multi-media (animation, video, film, computer graphics, music videos, advertisements), Chicken Poets remains legibly grounded in a schematic three-part story of artistic frustration, sell-out, and renunciation. The dance the film enacts with its audience, though (tease with radical form, then reassure with familiar content) seems content to muffle the sense of risk or provocation that renunciation requires.

Chen Kaige’s new comedy Together (He ni zai yiqi, 2002) occupies something like the negative space of Unknown Pleasures, though it is ostensibly engaged with similar concerns. It takes its formal templates right out of the genre playbook of mainstream (state sponsored) Chinese cinema: it combines rural innocents lost in the big city (which dates at least to the 1920s and 1930s era of classic Shanghai films) with a student’s apprenticeship saga (the master student template made famous by many a martial arts tale) and a Westernizing technical epic (usually the tale of a scientist or engineer who masters Western technology for the benefit of the motherland). Here, the technique is Western classical music, and the story shows the struggles of naĂŻve rural violin prodigy, Xiaochun, and his father, Liu Cheng, to flourish in big flashy modernizing Shanghai. Such a thematic catalogue readily lends itself to a sort of commentary on China’s current crises, which include what might be characterized as the apprenticeship of a nation in Western technique, and the ensuing cultural shock as this apprenticeship envelopes (or ignores) the rural heartland.

Together

Together really isn’t about cultural crisis though: we are far from the Chen Kaige of Yellow Earth (Huang tudi, 1984) and King of the Children (Haizi wang, 1987), films whose poeticized ambiguities were fraught with the feeling that though everything was at stake, no answers were available. Together itself deploys a highly polished technical expertise: fine luminous cinematography, tight plotting, sensitive, nuanced performances. It wants to entertain and comfort, to reassure audiences that problems are solvable, that happy endings are within our grasp. It reaches its own inevitable happy ending with a final dazzling display of montage (parallel scenes intercut in ways that fairly guarantee to pull the heartstrings and set your pulse racing) that almost obscures the sleight of hand needed to pull it off. With virtues like these, Together became one of the commercial sensations of TIFF: audience enthusiasm led to a mini bidding war among North American distributors; international commercial success should be assured.

Another less successful manifestation of the global entertainment empire’s (US branch) use of Chinese cinema is Shaolin Soccer (Shaolin zuqiu, 2001). The film is a showcase for Stephen Chiau, Hong Kong’s most popular comedian, who is its star, director, co-writer, and producer. Shaolin Soccer follows Chiau and his friends, former students of a Shaolin kungfu master, now a motley band of unemployed or socially marginal Shanghaiers, who band together and exploit their rejuvenated skills to become a champion soccer team, defeating the Evil Team (supercharged with American performance-enhancing drugs) in the process. A mutilated, dubbed version effectively neutered for North America was showcased by Miramax at TIFF. The original product was a fascinating re-imagining of director and star Stephen Chiau’s Hong Kong Everyman image into something like a (mainland) Chinese Everyman. Here, it is denatured and homogenized into a smugly ironic treat for English-speaking Hong Kong film fans, an occasion to chuckle over parodies of cultural difference (though Chiau reportedly dubs his own dialogue, Miramax has decided in its infinite wisdom to dub the other characters with stereotypically Chinese-accented English).

Also from Hong Kong, but miles from Shaolin Soccer‘s blockbuster aspirations, is the ultra-low budget Public Toilet (Renmin gongce, 2002). This film, shot by director Fruit Chan on digital video, didn’t exactly take TIFF by storm. Its exceedingly rough look and rambling narrative seem to rule out its acceptance as standard entertainment or “art house” fare. Part of the problem might be its subject matter – let’s call it toilet culture – something of a return of the (only partially) repressed, with a vengeance. Familiar items of Chan’s unique world recur: a largely non-professional cast made up of student actors and “civilians” that he plucked from the street; astonishing images seemingly grabbed on location by Chan’s inspired (and lucky) camera. But Public Toilet makes a radical break for the filmmaker in several ways. His focus explodes outside of the Hong Kong-China nexus that preoccupy his other features, to locations in Korea (Pusan), India (Varanasi), and New York. And he experiments boldly with digital video, capturing and manipulating images in ways that were only hinted at by the surrealistic underpinnings that poked out from the surface of his 35mm features.

Public Toilet

Most striking, though, is Public Toilet‘s narrative complexity. Four stories intertwine in the film, all involving toilets, plenty of pissing and defecating, and quests for miracle cures: a Beijing adolescent born in a toilet is on a quest to cure his comatose granny; a young Hong Kong hitman performs his last mission in New York; a family of HK-born South Asians accompany their ill father on a spiritual voyage to the Ganges; a Korean fisherman discovers a mermaid, sick from a polluted sea, in his outdoor toilet. The film, like the Hong Kong SAR, looks outward, discovering Hong Kong’s home no longer in its intensely and exhaustively argued-over relationship with the mainland, but in a world defined globally. Hong Kong faces a new identity crisis: it needs to remake itself as a global city now that it has been subsumed into the PRC. It can only thrive if it reconceptualizes its distinctiveness, if it constructs a new identity of its multicultural society, its richly interconnected communities and their links to the rest of the world. Hong Kong’s hope lies in its recognition that, already globalized, it is already radically advanced. Public Toilet embodies vanguard HK globalism, a brand of globalism that is as yet undeveloped, inchoate, waiting to be shaped and formed. While Public Toilet‘s radical style and sensibility mirrors this formal instability, the film bubbles with the untapped energy of new possibilities waiting to explode.

Different audiences can construct a film in different ways. Though both won prizes at the 2002 Venice Film Festival a week before Toronto, Public Toilet looked almost indigestible to a large portion of international art film marketplace, while Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun, 2002) was received much more smoothly. The latter film looks, comfortingly, like something we’ve already seen: a sedate, subtle, elegant, gorgeously crafted mature drama of barely constrained passion concealed beneath an extravagantly crafted shell (think of Flowers of Shanghai [Hai shang hua, 1998], or In the Mood For Love [Huayang nianhua, 2000]). Tian’s long-anticipated return to filmmaking (after a three-year ban and several more years of self-imposed inactivity) is a remake of what might be the greatest – certainly the most revered – Chinese film of all time, Fei Mu’s 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small Town (also Xiao cheng zhi cheng).

Set just after World War II, the story is almost identical to the original: a sickly landlord, Liyan, receives an unexpected visit from an old friend, Zhiwen. Zhiwen was once in love with Liyan’s wife, Yuwen, and as former passions rekindle, modern romance threatens traditional bonds of loyalty. The remake preserves the long, carefully designed takes, hauntingly dark atmosphere, and stealthily increasing tension of the original, but there are critical differences. Tian has abandoned the most innovative feature of Fei Mu’s version – Yuwen’s strikingly modernistic voice-over, a whispering stream-of-consciousness that complicates and poetizes everything that happens. The new film replaces subversive modernity with a traditional, almost classical film language. A stealthy panning and tracking camera (derived from the party scene of the original) oversees everything. Tian turns a radical commentary on China’s breakdown into a nostalgic celebration of a lost perfect past. But at the same time, the new film can be read as an active, urgent intervention into a contemporary Chinese political dilemma. It engages at a thematic and symbolical level to try and heal a violent rupture in Chinese culture: the chasm that Liberation (1949) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) opened between contemporary Chinese culture and its traditional past. Springtime in a Small Town takes on the project of reattaching the present to the past by bridging chasms, healing wounds. Ruptures of several kinds mark the film: the gulf in the original story between pre- and post-war China; the vast emotional space between the characters’ pre- and post-war selves; the ruined city wall, shown as permeable only by the film’s end. And in autobiographical terms, Springtime marks the end of the break in Tian Zhuangzhuang’s own interrupted career. The new film’s cultural project practically forces it to abjure the avant-garde gestures of the original, in favour of a self-consciously classicizing style that asserts a continuity with past Chinese film culture. Tian’s goal is retrospectively radical: to show how to bridge the rupture between China’s traditional past and its post-revolutionary present.