South of the Clouds

in 28th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Lawrence Pun

A low-budgeter “South of the Clouds” won both the Fipresci Prize and the Firebird Awards for Young Cinema at the 28th Hong Kong International Film Festival.

South of the Clouds is the name of a place in the Yunnan province, located at the periphery of Southwestern China. Celebrated for its ethnic diversity, particularly the Mosuo people who still follow their matriarchal culture, the region is filled with strong sense of remoteness and mystery. In Zhu Wen’s second feature, this geographical location is taken as a metaphor to tell the story of his parent’s generation.

The protagonist, Xu Dagin, is a retire in his 60s. He yearns for a trip to Yunnan, but none of his children knows why it is so important to him. The film unfolds the trip’s deeper meanings progressively, but the children are ignorant of it till the very end.

So what is the meaning? In some sense, it is a “return” trip, going back to the prime time of youth and a place signifying dream and idealism. However, as we know later, Xu actually had never been to Yunnan. It is actually a pursuit for an “alter ego”, who never actualizes in life, but just as a possibility of life at a point. And such a possibility, when it is gone, becomes the impossibility of life that one can just imagine and for which one can only have regrets.

In many respects, the south stands as an antithesis of the north. Zhu Wen cleverly takes Yunnan, a place culturally and geographically distinct from the north, as a metaphor to bring out the themes of dream and reality, primitiveness and civilization, fate and happenchance, possibility and impossibility of life, history and personal memory, individual and collectivity, etc (though the Lugu lake which is home to the Mosuo people is not very well-tied with the film, making the link between matriarchy and patriarchy weak). And these contradictions finally become blurred after a mysterious dream which rubs off the demarcation between dream and reality. The presence of a prostitute comes immediately after the strange dream, as a U-turn, bringing Xu back to cruel reality. If Yunnan can be taken as a utopia in the film, it embodies both the eutopia (a blessed land) and the outopia (nowhere), a double meaning in the word’s original Greek form. While Xu is trapped by the prostitute, we see that his daughter, lying in bed naked and ignoring her father’s phone call, seems deceived by the “investor” (the panda man) too. Such double deceits establish parallels and contrasts between the two generations. The father and daughter’s part is moving, but it is largely truncated in the second half of the film.

The film ends with a close-up freeze frame of the bittersweet face of Xu, wearing a smile as tears run out of his eyes. This last shot is powerful and impressive, which shapes the mentality of the past generation – having gone through extreme hardships but still possessing of high forbearance in their lives. The film abstracts the hardships experienced by Xu’s generation. For example, it doesn’t explain the early death of his wife, neither is there a single word on the political turbulences of that era (though the word “reform through labor” may remind people of the Cultural Revolution), making the protagonist somehow “hallow”. But on the other hand, this abstraction allows the film to gain resonance from a wider public.