Intense Moments

in 9th Busan International Film Festival

by Ayman Youssef

Soap Opera was one of the few good films among the eleven in Pusan’s “New Currents” competition.

The film consists of four short stories that treat the new negative aspects of everyday life in China, yet in modern and open societies on a larger scale, through different families – persons’ affairs and problems. The treatment of director Wu Er-shan is shocking in reflecting the daily indifference, pressures and violence that modern societies witness.

On first impression, one might think that the four stories are unlinked; but actually the story about comrade Lao Deng, who has been attempting suicide from the beginning of the film till its end, served as the witness of the other stories. Soap Opera.

The first shot, before the film’s titles is of Lao Deng trying to stretch his body on the railway tracks in the hope that the train will run over him. From the scene of Lao Deng, we move to the second story. A middle-school student, the innocent-looking Leyi, is battered and insulted, kicked and slapped by his stronger school fellows; he is powerless to react. When those bullies force him to bring them 50 Yuan the next day, Leyi steals 100 Yuan from his father’s wallet and spends 50 Yuan on games.

Leyi is used to accompanying to school an elementary school kid from the neighborhood. One afternoon, on coming back from the school, he suggests playing a game; Leyi will play the role of the kidnapper, and the kid will play the kidnapped. The game turned out to be real. Leyi phones the kid’s mother and asks for money in order to release the kid. When the mother does not take the threatening call seriously, he goes back to the building under construction in which he keeps the kid wrapped as a hostage, and covers his face with plastic bags lest he shout and causes noise. Next day the policemen discover the dead body of the kid. Soap Opera.

We go back to Lao Deng as he checks into a hotel room trying to cut his wrists with a blade; but he fails again in committing suicide. Moving to the third and most violent, shocking and unexpected story, we meet Zhang, a respectable married middle-age white-collar man, a traditional father and husband. But Zhang suffers from insomnia. Gradually the viewer discovers that he also suffers from the lack of communication between him and his wife, and from a sort of impotence. Six girls of bad reputation move into the flat above Zhang’s, which makes it much more difficult for Zhang, and even for his wife, to sleep at night. The girls don’t care about their neighbors. They play the radio and TV loudly in the middle of the night, causing so much noise as they talk and walk and the sounds of their sex with strangers are clearly heard by Zhang and his wife, and naturally disturb them.

One night, Zhang goes up and asks them politely not to make noise during the night. They say “Sorry”, but keep on with their behavior through the following nights. Zhang leaves his bed and tries to sleep in his car in front of his building, but he isn’t allowed to sleep there as policemen suspect him and ask him to go back home. Next morning, as he is driving his daughter to school, he falls asleep deeply when the car has stopped at the traffic lights. On another day he falls asleep in a park as two thieves steal his bag. Soap Opera.

When Zhang is disturbed again by his upstairs neighbors, he goes up again and hangs a sign on their door saying “It’s very late, please be quiet. Thanks”. All his peaceful and polite attempts to draw their attention to the loud noise is in vain. He goes up again, enters their flat and with a big knife he stabs the six girls to death. Next day, Zhang is happily having a picnic with his little daughter!

Lao Deng appears again as he is crossing a street indifferently while a man and a young woman in a car are about to crush him. They turn abruptly to avoid him. Again, nothing happens to Lao, but the car is destroyed and its passengers are hurt. In the police station, an officer kept blaming Deng for his suicide attempts that cause harm to others. Deng takes the officer’s gun and shoots himself in the head.

Then comes the third story. The young son of a famous cook Zhang Wei-dong is so proud of his father’s achievements and the many awards he receives. One day, Wei-dong phones the police to confess that he slaughtered his wife. Back again, and for the last time, Lao Deng is going out of the hospital, his head wrapped with bandages. He has dinner with the same officer. Deng tells him that the bullet he shot at his head helped him greatly! As he was accumulating liquid in the brain, and it pressed the nerves, it caused an extreme reaction to his suicidal tendencies. This means that Deng was cured due to this bullet after so many failed attempts to commit suicide.

It is ironic that Deng, the witness, who had been trying with a strong intention to commit suicide throughout the film gives up this idea in the end, while the others in the other three stories, who seemed rational, balanced and logical, and had no intention of committing a crime, ended up being involved in killing.

It is the irrational moment that overwhelms the man as a result of the irrationality of everyday life in modern societies, societies in transition, societies associated with industrialization, consumer values and the up-and-coming technology, with its negative consequences on the average citizen.

The morning after the night Zhang killed the six women, as he is rowing a boat with his daughter, director Wu Er-shan cuts at the same time to the faces and dead bodies of the women. We watch the effects of this massacre, and simultaneously hear from the radio some other “meaningful” news such as: Fire in the Xiagen Meng grass lands is raging out of control; Flood in an Amli coal mine in Henan province, 15 miners have been caught in an underground shaft for over 60 minutes; Markets in Nanging defy authorities and continue to sell a large amount of wild animals.

The couple in the car which was about to hit Lao Deng were arguing over music. While the woman likes modern music, the man refuses the trivial and worthless style of new music.

In a scene for Zhang in his working office, his colleague is interviewing some young candidates for a vacant job. As Zhang is engaged in preparing his morning coffee, we hear in the background the severe conditions of work, and even the difficulties of taking a break during work where if one forgets one of these conditions one can easily get fired. It’s a clear indication of unemployment and the problems of getting a job and the pressures that come from this.

The shock and disappointment of the son in his famous cook father condemns the absence of ideals in modern societies. The tension of life is reflected in the monotonous movement of Leyi’s turning his night torch on and off of his own face through the night as he can’t sleep thinking of the insults from his stronger colleagues. This is exactly what pushed him to practice in turn pressure on a weaker person, on the kid. It’s a metaphorical image for the beaten people in societies who in turn beat others and the others beat others. it is a vicious circle.

The tense moment was also clear in the easy way Deng tries to finish his life, and in the quick and nervous movement of the pen in the hand of the director of the famous cook’s show.

Despite the low-budget and the use of Beta video, director Er-shan plays on the “tone” of the colors in a subtle way. These four stories can be read in daily papers, not only in China.

Ayman Youssef