On Two Surprising Chinese Films By Michel Euvrard
Outside of the Nordic films that were competing for our FIPRESCI prize Göteborg, I saw two very different Chinese films that pleased me. Zhang Yang’s Sunflower tells the story of the conflicted relationship between a son and his father over the years, from just before the death of Mao (in 1976) up to the early 1990’s. A painter, named Gengnian, has spent years in a labor camp where his hands were permanently damaged. He returns home to his wife and to his nine-year old son Xiangyang, whom he hardly knows (the similarity of the director and the son’s name suggests an autobiographical content, though the film is not told in a first person style). Xiangyang, growing older, plans to escape to a neighboring city with his best buddy and his girlfriend, but his father forbids him to go.
Eventually, Xiangyang aquires a new girlfriend and finds pleasure in his hobby as a painter; but he resists his parents’ pressure to give them a grandchild, fearing he’ll make the same mistakes as his father. When his girlfriend becomes pregnant she agrees to an abortion. Another year will have to pass before Xiangyang is sure enough of himself to have a successful exhibition of his paintings, and to become a father.
The father and son conflict is set against the background of a little town, showing the daily incidents and accidents. A spectacular earthquake destroys the old part of town where the family lives and they are temporarily housed with the other victims in a vast warehouse. The mother is obsessively bent on getting a new, larger, modern apartment, but Gengnian, being a man of rigid principles, refuses to buy gifts of cigarettes and liquor for the bureaucrat who designates the new apartments to families. When the mother learns that single employees of the firm where she works can get an apartment, she divorces Gengnian, on the understanding that once she has moved into the new apartment they will remarry. At film’s end this has yet to happen.
Sunflower combines in a compelling way the universal theme of the father and son relationship and the realistic depiction of life in the specific time and place in which it takes place.
Ning Ying’s Perpetual Motion is a very different and rather surprising Chinese film. It’s about three women in their early forties who meet on the eve of the Spring Festival in an opulent mansion owned by Niuniu, the succesful editor of a fashion magazine and wife of a best-selling author. The four of them are exquisitely dressed and will behave with a striking mixture of elegance and ferocity.
Behind the friendly celebration there lurks Niuniu’s vindictive intent to find who among her girlfriends wrote a letter celebrating in the crudest language her husband’s sexual prowess. In a long sequence of close shots, the women eat boiled hen’s legs with great style and gusto. Niuniu invites them to tell how each first met their husbands. In graphic detail, we hear descriptions of the way men of different nationalities make love.
We shall, however, not find out whether Nuinui succeeds in her devious and perverse undertaking, because news is brought to the house of her husband’s death in a car accident. But there was time enough for the four women to reveal something of the traumas of their past: political events, family tragedies, sentimental affairs buried deep beneath the modern facade of success, of relaxed, somewhat cynical elegance. This causes a “perpetual motion” of passions and repressed desires.