Art of Revival

in 47th Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Milan Vlajcic

The 2009 Viennale presented about 170 films in all categories, but more than half were documentaries. Some of these films focused on political topics (liberalism, neoliberalism, libertarianism vs. liberalism) but most looked at the lives of people struggling for existential existence. This has always been the greatest challenge for all authentic cineasts since the time cinema was invented as a new medium for understanding life around us.            

Frankly, I was surprised by the appearance of a new Chinese film wave, composed of brand new names, and what is most important, a novel attitude towards bleak and sombre topics in the life of contemporary Chinese society. This is brand new, unlike anything we’ve seen in the past twenty years from well known Chinese auteurs. At the Viennale I saw ten Chinese films, most of them documentaries, but feature films seemed to share the same feelings as docudramas, and offered shocking insights into themes and scenes from life, leaving a long lasting impression.            

One of the best films in the festival was Yu Guangyi’s documentary Survival Song (Xiao li zi). It follows the story of a couple of poachers somewhere in the wild northeastern part of China, close to Manchuria. After losing his job as a forest ranger, Han supports his family by illegally hunting and trapping wild boar. The couple live in a rickety wooden hut, their little daughter goes to a school in town. When an old army friend appears, the newcomer is received with warm feeling, although the family lives in great poverty without electricity and running water. And life goes on. But the government is clearing the area to build a water reservoir, and Han and his family must move to a nearby location where they live in similar poor conditions.                

Yu Guangyi made this semi-documentary, or docudrama, with great sense and artistic skill. The people in the film reconstruct their painful daily life with such authenticity and force that I was constantly wondering: how is it possible to direct a film that looks so painful and yet so wonderful?          

Every shot in the film is a document but also something above it. When at the end, the government becomes involved in the destiny of these people, we understand that the corrupted officials are part of their lives. These unsung heroes never complain about their miserable living conditions. I do not think this is some masochistic streak developed under longtime dictatorship. Maybe this is a residue of Buddhistic spiritual tradition.          

I tried to talk with You Guangyi at the festival’s closing party. Unfortunately, I found he did not speak  English or French. But we exchanged smiles, and he sensed I was enthusiastic about his wonderful film.    

Edited by Yael Shuv