Imitations of Life By Léo Soesanto

in 22nd Fribourg International Film Festival

by Leo Soesanto

My little China Girl
You shouldn’t mess with me
I’ll ruin everything you are.

The line from David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s song “China Girl” could apply to two films of the competition, the different but equally remarkable Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (He Fengming) and Teeth of Love (Ai qing de ya chi). The films offer two strategies for telling a story of broken lives, a woman’s tale, at the same time private and political, throughout China’s history. Fengming is a minimalist, radical, intense documentary whereas Teeth of Love could be described as a Fassbinderian melodrama.

From the patient — very patient — documentarian Wang Bing, Fengming is quite an experience for the viewer; perhaps a bit tame, compared to his epic eight-hour behemoth West of the Track (Tie xi qu). But here is a three-hour film, shot in real time with very few cuts, stretched to the unbearable, with minimal lighting and action. The experience is like “watching” a Philip Glass piece or a contemporary art installation — some (Chinese) box which contaminates us with its claustrophobia. Fengming is, in Wang Bing’s words, a preliminary work in progress for his next film, which will be his first dramatic feature.

But what a work in progress! The opening long take will be one of the very few dynamic moments of the film, depicting the (probably) ironic “Long March” of the main character walking home — Fengming, an old woman and former journalist who survived the horrors of Mao’s era, from the “anti-rightist” campaigns to the Cultural Revolution. She finally sits down in her living room, and speaks: The film is a monologue to the camera, to the viewer, without any external commentary or perspective. With her journalist’s background, Fengming looks like a talking head, relating non-redacted facts and recollections in a monotonous tone that only breaks when painful memories come to mind.

André Bazin would have liked the experience, given that the film avoids the original sin of cinema and documentaries: Editing. This is almost pure filmmaking. Some fades seem to be there only to offer welcome pauses in this general intensity. Jia Zhangke, another great observer of China, once said about his long takes: “If I were to break up a scene which lasts for six or seven minutes into several cuts, then you lose that sense of deadlock. The deadlock that exists between humans and time, the camera and its subject.” Wang Bing’s deadlock looks like some kind of black hole.

This is the story of a strong woman, a sincere Communist who was humiliated (she says that not being called “comrade” was very painful), separated from her husband and children, and sent to labour camps to be “re-educated”. The strength of this survival tale comes not only from the horrors described but also from the worrying level of details the woman supplies without a pause, especially when she remembers smells, colors, or even the weight variations of her meals, or speaks that rather disturbing sentence: “99.98 % of rightists were rehabilitated”.

At this point, the documentary goes somewhere else, and listening to this audio book in the form of a woman, one wonders how she prepared herself before the shooting (even if she wrote a book about her experience and seems used to telling her story). That her face is without expression, and that her eyes cannot be seen behind her thick glasses (only reflections) for one hour, fuels her energy with strangeness. It’s like watching a stream of political consciousness.

The connection becomes clear when she refers to ghosts. The dead angle of the film, which justifies the story being told exclusively from her point of view, is her dead husband, the focus of another tragedy. The documentary turns, then, into a ghost story, which suits Fengming’s spectral voice. Wang Bing conveys this mood with just a few intelligent tricks, like filming until darkness comes. There’s a simple but wonderful moment, disturbing and almost comical, when Wang asks Fengming to turn on the light, as if he wanted to bring solace to his character and to a gloomy film where a woman wants to raise the dead by telling her story. As a secret gift to Fengming, or a counterpoint, Wang Bing does raise the dead — but he does it in another film, the collective State of the World: among Chantal Akerman or Pedro Costa, Wang Bing expresses his own world-view within a Communist Ghost Story. “The Dead live in a dark beyond, the world turns away from them”, Fengming says. In a desperately honest way, Wang Bing makes sure we don’t forget them.

Fengming’s story is the stuff of melodrama. In fact, she tells the synopsis of a melodrama, which Zhuang Yuxin’s Teeth of Love is. Behind this impressive first feature lies the essence of the good films of the genre: Blending personal and political issues, Chinese sentimentalism and European distance, and, as in the best Fassbinder, Sirk or John Stahl films, making women the embodiment of society’s contradictions. Teeth of Love is another case of a woman using her own story to tell her nation’s, talking — this time to her dentist — about ten years of Communism in China, from 1977 to 1987. The film deals with womanhood and the challenge of being smart and independent in a repressive society; of repressed desire, where this behavior is seen as rightist, or bourgeois. The main character, a former doctor, begins as a brat at school and discovers her womanhood through tragic events, learning that young love can be cruel.

The most powerful moment of the film is the abortion scene mentioned earlier, where everything is thematically reversed: She herself leads the proceedings, and perceives that aborting a pregnancy is like “giving birth” — a proof of love. She finally finds freedom, but at a price — such as in the depressive chapter of Kafka’s book “The Castle” when K. discovers he’s free, free of doing nothing. The main actress Yan Bingyan is magnetic, whether she’s playing a teenage gang leader or an unsure mother. The film follows and ultimately transcends cliches — especially the kitschy fades to red between scenes — as a straightforward melodrama about a doomed woman, and a doomed society. The cheesy English title deals with male castration as well as with everlasting, female pain.