Gloom in the Chinese Hinterland

in 13rd Pusan International Film Festival

by Bitopan Borborah

Since the days of Chen Kaige, the famous Chinese director who made a major breakthrough with Yellow Earth (1984), and Zhang Yimou who won the Golden Bear in the Berlin Festival for his debut film Red Sorghum (1987), Chinese cinema has been making waves with its unique narrative style as well as an evocative, eye-catching cinematography. Two films which were part of this year’s “New Currents” section at the Pusan Film Festival, perhaps carry the legacy of that tradition as both the films reflect the gloom of its hapless characters against the backdrop of the adverse socio-political reality of the Chinese hinterland, in a remarkable cinematic idiom and imagery.                

Director Ye Zhao’s Jalainur was the one film which shone bright with its very differentiated portrayal of a crisis both individually and socially, and with a beautiful handling of cinematic space and a narrative where stress was laid on the unfathomable pain and anguish of the characters. Here, the cameraman Yi Zhang, in his debut film, seems to be “painting emotions with light” as Ingmar Bergman famously said about his cameraman Sven Nykvist. Zhang creates a canvas of moods and emotions, capturing all the hues and colors of the colliery; the billowing smoke of the locomotives and their movements, the texture of snow, the mosaic of railway tracks and other signs and symbols.              

Jalainur (a Mongolian word meaning ocean-like lake) is actually a colliery in the Manzhouli city of Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in the northernmost part of China. Hundred years of exploration have created a huge crater in the ground of the colliery, and now being nearly empty it is on the verge of closure. Its large number of workers will soon be laid off and the steam trains which have been rumbling for years will be off-track as well. The main protagonist of the film is ageing Zhu, who has been active there for thirty years as a steam train driver, and the other protagonist is young Li Zhizhong, his apprentice. They bond well. The hopelessness of the situation, however, compels Zhu to retire and, with a deep sense of remorse and anguish, he takes the road to his home. Young Zhizhong finds it difficult to accept Zhu’s retirement and decides to follow his companion. Zhu tries to persuade him to turn back but deep in his heart he finds it hard to let Zhizhong go. After many miles of the journey together, Zhizhong finally bids adieu to his master at a remote railway station when Zhu’s daughter and son-in-law appear to escort him home. The future for young Zhizhong seems gloomy.              

The beauty of Jalainur in its ability to carry this concern as an underlying issue though the camaraderie of its protagonists. In one unforgettable, powerful moment, while the two protagonists get on the back of a lorry, a white sheet of tarpaulin attached to the vehicle is torn apart by the wind and drifts away to the sea shore. In another moment Zhu disembarks from the vehicle on his way to his daughter’s home and on the roadside he pauses for a while in introspection; the thirty years of attachment with men, machines and the land surely have its own attraction. But then life has to go on, Zhu again takes the road, while Zhizhong takes another train towards a new dawn. Jalainur, with his deep working class concerns, and filled visual splendor, promises a lot from the this young director.    

Jin Yang’s Er Dong is also remarkable for its simple portrayal of a story of a young drifter, who finds it very hard to support his family with all the menial jobs he lays his hands on. He starts having nightmares about selling his newly-born baby to end his woes. This is when he discovers that though he has been raised with great care, his mother is not his real one and he was actually sold off to her by his parents in the face of abject poverty. He feels a deep pain and decides not to sell his own child. One day he leaves the village, deserting his “mother”, wishing to go “as far I can go”. The film is narrated in a very simple documentary style, following Er Dongs’ daily chores, at the same time capturing the pitiable conditions all around him. The way the film heightens the tensions among the characters and leads it to the climax with no tinge of music, is really amazing. Er Dong is however more significant for its graphic unfolding of life in the Chinese hinterland which reflects the underdevelopment of the place and the miserable poverty of the people, far removed from the hurly-burly of development and the fast pace of mainland China, a state not much dissimilar with Jalainur.                

There was another film from China in the “New Currents” section titled Routine Holiday by Hongqi, which did not impress much. However in the package of 14, Land of Scarecrows by Korean director Roh Gyeong-tae, A Moment in June by Thai director O Nathapon, 100 by Filipino director Chris Martinez, A Light in the Fog by Iranian director Panabharkhoda Rezaee, Naked of Defenses by Japanese director Masahide Ichii, Members of Funeral by Korean director Baek Seung-bin appeared to be notable for their incredible content and style.