The Wild Side of Chinese Cinema By Barbara Schweizerhof

in 35th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Barbara Schweizerhof

A radical change of style seems to have taken place in Chinese cinema. Whereas, in the eighties and nineties, Chinese films, thanks to Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, were mostly associated with colorful landscapes, opulent costumes and historical tragedy displayed in wonderful CinemaScope, the films of the now-emerging generation of Chinese directors have a totally different look and atmosphere: rough and gritty, mostly filmed with digital and/or hand-held cameras, depicting bleak lives in a disintegrating society, where violence rules and small kids have to learn how to get rid of their brutish parents.

Han Jie’s film Lai Xiao Zi (Walking on the Wild Side), that won one of the main awards in Rotterdam, is set in a drab miner’s town with constantly gray skies, muddy streets and corresponding colorless houses. We see a group of students and dropouts hanging out together, the only fun they’re having is sitting in the driver’s cabin of a truck. Then a schoolgirl gets raped by one of the dropouts. A friend of hers tries to take revenge, himself ending up in a pool of his own blood on the school floor. The ones who’ve hit him flee out of town fearing prosecution in case the student dies. Brought together by chance or rather, bad luck, they have no sense of friendship for each other, and soon betrayal and robbery undo even the bit of criminal solidarity they once shared. What, in the beginning, felt like an adventurous road-trip thus ends inevitably “bad”: Not only are they wasting their lives in senseless acts of violence, their very existence is shown to be utterly worthless and futile.

The movie shows no mercy for its heroes: No ray of sunshine is allowed to emphasize the colors of the landscape, so that the bleakness of the surroundings matches the harshness of the characters almost too perfectly. Nobody seems worth our sympathy, neither the girl, who appears to be lazy and dumb, nor any of the young boys, who seem to have no feelings besides aggression. Walking on the Wild Side impresses with the fierceness in which it depicts a society in decay, a country transforming from the bitter realities of socialism to the even more bitter ones of capitalism.

To tell his story the filmmaker relies on familiar movie-topics like the desperado-western, thus giving his movie a feeling of genre. And it is this obvious alertness for style and the classics of cinema that has a dubious effect: Modern China is put on display for the comforting contempt of the audience. It is the country we love to have a nightmare about.

Not much more consoling, but still subtle was the second Chinese movie in the Tiger competition, Ying Liang’s Bei ya zi de nan hai (Taking Father Home). Here, in the beginning, a boy is looking straight into the – digital – camera, vowing to go to town and look for his father to bring him back. We hear a female voice arguing with him and doubting his abilities. But the boy stays resolute. He has no money and sets out with a very small bag and a big basket with two live ducks in it, two comically indifferent and innocent witnesses of things to come.

The search proves to be much more difficult than the boy imagined. Having nothing but the ducks on his back and a peasant-like stubbornness, he asks a man, he has met on the bus, for help. That is: he forces him to do so by silently and obstinately following him. The man then acts in a confusingly ambiguous way: he tries to help as well as to gain money from the boy. Within a short time the boy ends up at the local police station, where, in an officer he finds his next unwilling guardian. More concerned with getting him off his back than out of sympathy, the policeman wanders around the city with him, finding only feeble hints that could lead to the missing father. The two of them don’t talk much, but over time a bond grows between them in a reluctant and tentative way. While they continue on their doomed mission, the coming of a flood is announced; public loudspeakers urge the inhabitants to leave town. The streets of the bleak and wet city become less and less crowded, until the boy, his ducks and the very few people he interacts with appear to be the last ones left: a bit like ghosts that haunt a once prosperous, now deserted city.

In a way, how the city “prepares” for the coming of the catastrophe works as a metaphor for the hasty and often chaotic transition Chinese society is going through. Those with issues have to stay behind – and nobody will miss them. “We are living in times, when the shameless fear the desperate,” is one of the phrases the boy learns from his first “guardian”. And how this strangely resolute, and at the same time totally helpless young boy becomes aware of his own desperation and thus learns to offer resistance to the “shameless” – is a very intriguing piece of cinema.