Somewhere in China

in 20th Haifa International Film Festival

by Ulrich von Thüna

The Chinese film has always been considered a mirror of social and political problems. Still today there is censorship in China and state financing of film production, which allows another form of control. But China’s filmmakers produce more and more films which do not embellish reality. One example in Haifa was Jingzhe by Wang Quan’an, his second film after the wildly acclaimed Lunar Eclipse (2000). In telling an apparently simple story, he succeeds in giving a complex picture of Chinese rural society. The presence of the beautiful and moving actress Yu Nan is one of the strengths of the film.

Ermei, a young girl of independent mind from a village in northern China, refuses to marry the son of a rich family and leaves for the next city. But an unpleasant love affair and unpleasant work lead her back to the village. She marries the rich son, a baby arrives, and everything indicates that she has resigned herself to her fate. But Ermei defends her interests and those of her child and there is a faint hope that one day the child may live in a world without restraints.

Jingzhe starts with a death and ends with a happy baby. That might be a clever trick to attract our attention. But basically the story is told in a straightforward way; we live and feel with young Ermei. Her most prominent feature, independence of mind, is her worst enemy in a society based on conformity. You have to arrange with society: stealing a tree to make a coffin is a crime, but it can be settled with the authorities; a marriage can be settled, too, and more doubtful activities in the city can also be settled. But playful Ermei is strong headed and cannot be corrupted. Obviously, in so-called socialist China, money greases everything, but Ermei cannot be bought.

But she knows when compromising is needed. The rich but unpleasant husband is a necessity for Ermei to live decently and avoid being the object of even more unpleasant interests. Such interests are represented by other men and also by a representative of the state. In this film, as far as we can see, not a single state official can be trusted. This is quite surprising within a cinema still controlled by the state. The final message is clear: Ermei tells her child how nice it would be to see foreign countries and to live there. Faraway Europe or America seem more attractive than present-day China.

Central to the success of the film is the personality of Yu Nan. She is lively, not pretentious, and moving in sad moments as well as in pleasant ones. The other characters seem quite realistic. The director avoids caricatures. Jingzhe is just a plain film about a young woman somewhere in China. Certainly it is not a film à thèse . But it is a political film.

Ulrich von Thüna