"Betelnut": Internet, Cell Phones and a Love Triangle By Wen Tien-hsiang

in 31st Hong Kong

by Wen Tien-hsiang

Yang Heng’s Betelnut (Bonglang) is set in China’s Hunan Province. The protagonists are two young men, one is a rowdy while the other one has a quiet character. They live on a boat, and they use stolen motorbikes as means of transport. However, these vehicles do not carry them away from their home town. In a dull summer, they even manage to find a romance. The rowdy boy notices a girl who speaks loudly and smokes heavily at an Internet café. He borrows a lighter from her, as a pretext to introduce himself. Soon, they start to date, after another rendezvous at a gas station. The quiet boy is infatuated in a pretty girl who already has a boyfriend. He dares to follow her only from a distance, and breaks the boyfriend’s window to articulate his frustration.

On the surface, it looks like a “usual” topic, among Chinese independent films. Many films have touched this issue of youth and its passions. But Yang has given it a new interpretation. He is aware that the young generation of today can easily talk with strangers through the Internet, while they are rather speechless when being with their loved ones. Modern civilization (Internet, cellular phones) has an effect on relationships, but cannot change the thrill of a first love and the melancholy of a failed breaking-up. In the scene by the river when the rowdy boy sees his girlfriend leaving for work at the new city of Shenzhen, he suddenly turns quiet and refuses to tell her the truth about how he got beaten up. It is the quiet boy that smashed the head of his love’s rival. At the same time, he learns — through a cellular phone message — the shattering truth about this adorable girl’s liaison with another Internet boyfriend. Both boys seem to have set, by their characters, on opposite courses, but both end in the anguish of youth.

Chinese paintings have put an emphasis on the “esthetics of space”, and Chinese literature has tended to favor “minimalist words”. Probably, these traditional esthetics have an effect on Chinese filmmakers who construct their filmic universe with minimal dialogues and long takes. Compared with other films, Betelnut really does not carry a distinct narrative, regarding its few dialogues, but the film is filled with meticulous details worth savoring. For preserving the naturalistic interpretations of non-professional actors, Yang Heng worked hard to create an according mood and interpersonal relationships. A “non-reliance” on authentic language has opened up new potentials for the language of cinema. Besides his ability of handling the mis-en-scene in long takes, the unhurried tempo, the claustrophobic picture composition, he has also succeeded in bringing across the protagonists’ emotional state and their milieu.

Though on a technical level, there are flaws in the film’s sound to a state that could be “torturous” to an audience, it is the music that has really allowed the images to take flight; for example in the scene when the boy follows the girl jogging on purpose, and the girl has sprained her ankle: the boy hesitates for a moment before having the courage to offer her his assistance, and a few musical notes are enough to express the boy’s tingling heartbeat on coming close to the girl’s ankle. For a new director, a keen observation and unique ways of expression are more essential than the technical support that he needs.

Betelnut is never a refined fruit. Writer/director/cinematographer Yang Heng has turned Betelnut into a film of lingering flavor. Besides a continuation of the esthetics of realism in the Chinese independent cinema, we can also see the coming of age of a creative artist with a unique vision.