On Eight Chinese-language Films by Emerging Filmmakers

in 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Yung-Hang Bruce Lai

In his report, Yung-Hang Bruce Lai reviews eight films nominated for the Young Cinema Competition (Chinese Language) section at the 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival. Most of them cover various stages of men’s lives, except Stonewalling, which is about a young woman’s inner interrogation of the very meaning of life.

When boys turn into men

It often takes too long for boys to become men.

Bad Education (Hei de jiào yù) is about how to be bad. While the education system fails, the three teenage boys need the ‘shock education’ from gangsters who teach them how to be real badasses. It’s also a bit ‘shocking’ to me why this mainstream gangster film is listed among other art films for the same prize. The film is not an anti-generic or ground-breaking case. It is too long because the ‘main course’ does not take more than 60 minutes, and many ‘side dishes’ are added just to make this film long enough to reach feature length. Graphic depictions of violence against marginal lives are unnecessary or excessive. The directorial decision, in this case, just repeats the desire of those main characters trying to impress others with abusive pretension. It does show us how to be bad.

Tomorrow is a Long Time (Míng tian bi zuo tian chang jiu)’s title is as honest as the film is long. Perhaps Jow Zhi Wei, the director, wants to suggest that the father’s toil and the son’s growth are slow processes. This film is also about dreams, blurring the line between the surreal and the real, dreaming and wakefulness. This feature is highlighted by the presence of the Malayan tapir, often referred to as the mythical, nightmare-eating Japanese baku (do you know Drowzee in Pokémon?).

One more question: Why do all these boys need Leon Dai as the father figure? His presence and absence, respectively in Bad Education and Tomorrow is a Long Time, make these films useful in a theory class like ‘Film and Psychoanalysis’, where they can demonstrate castration and the death of the father.

The home-coming man

Boys leave home, to return men. The hero of Absence (Xue yun) has left the prison and simply wants a home. Absence is full of the presence of other filmmakers. Casting Lee Kang-sheng without Tsai Ming-liang’s shadow is not easy. We saw people dreaming in flooded architectural ruins or unfinished building sites in Tsai’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. You may also think of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (2015) and Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006).

Night Falls is about a man who left home and achieved nothing, now returns, and still archives nothing. He is confused, so are the audiences. It is a road movie going nowhere.

Both films feature how the home-coming man meets his ex-lover, who is now a hairdresser and a single mother with a daughter. This trope is intriguing—what makes a hairdresser sexy to the prodigal son? In Night Falls, a long take shows the hero having his hair washed by the single mom whose fingers gently caress his wet head. But it is less erotic than dangerous when the service comes to the shave—castration anxiety again?

The preoccupied man

The Chinese word jia (家) is ambiguous, referring to home, family, or a place to live. While some males leave it, some struggle for it, and others own it, but also abuse it. Kissing the Ground You Walked On (Hai ou lai guo de fang jian) from Macau, and Coo-Coo 043 (Yi jia zi er gu gu jiao) from Taiwan talk about how jia functions as a site of obsessive desires, where relationships are both constructed and destructed.

In a dialogue with Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull, Kissing the Ground You Walked On tries to be self-reflexive, when it comes to the author/artist’s relationship with their characters. There are two male protagonists: the writer and the actor. The writer is a landlord who is obsessed with peeping on his tenants through pinhole cameras, while one of his tenants is a self-absorbed drama actor. Both are stuck in their creative careers, and only their libido remains. Unfortunately, intimacy leaves no room for reflexivity. The actor bears an androgynous function as he embodies both Nina and Konstantin from Chekhov’s classic play, and more—as the titular bird! Ironically, I heard unintended laughter in the auditorium at the actor’s saddest moment, when he lies down as the dead bird. He cries quietly, but I almost feel the absurdity he feels: “What the gull I am playing here?”

Coo-Coo 043 centres around another species of bird: the pigeon. In a game setting, the bird equivocally symbolises how men cage themselves, while women flee. Yet the film still cares more about men’s obsession than ‘what happens after Nora leaves home,’ referring to Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House. The film is too long, ending with an additional surreal sequence, suggesting that males are only free as ghosts.

On the contrary, men who live long enough are haunted by the past, especially when the dead are not really dead, and truth does not perish even when it is burnt to ashes. To Love Again (Zai tuan yuan) reopens the tomb and touches the wound left by the Cultural Revolution. Christianity representing redemption signifies the guilt the Red Guards’ generation cannot get rid of. Performance and camerawork in To Love Again are proficient and accurate, surprising as the directorial debut of Gao Linyang.

The woman, finally

Stonewalling stands out among all eight nominees with its feminist voice, also a universal touch of the embodied experience of living in a precarious situation.  Pregnancy and abortion in this peculiar social context go beyond the “pro-life vs pro-choice” debate, delving into the complication of anti-human, marketized biopolitics. However, you can see how directors Ji Huang and Ryûji Otsuka infuse this ruthless world with warmth and care. Yao Honggui, the leading actress, effectively communicates her character’s pain and endurance, fragility and insistence to the audience.

Yung-Hang Bruce Lai
Edited by Savina Petkova