China gets its own indie/mainstream cinema dichotomyIn October, I caught a screening of Jia Zhangke's The World at the New York Film Festival. I'd never seen any of his movies before, though Unknown Pleasures was atop my Netflix queue just before I suspended it for my move to NYC. American audiences eat up foreign movies that are foreign, but familiar, like fusion Asian restaurants. Movies with happy endings, like Amelie, or rapid-paced action scenes, like House of Flying Daggers, well-received at an earlier NYFF screening.
The World has none of that going for it. The ending is not happy. The pacing is deliberate. The narrative is a collection of loose plot strands, rather than the tight three-act arc Western audiences have been raised on. The soundtrack does not cue the audience in to how they should react to the events on screen, unlike the transparent, sweeping themes of the latest Hans Zimmer score. Not surprisingly, a steady stream of spectators, many of them elderly, walked out during the screening, their patience exhausted.
Weaned on a diet heavy in American flavors, I needed nearly the full length of the movie to find my footing and absorb the director's vision. Not only is the movie foreign, but so is the story. The movie follows the lives of young Chinese who've moved from the countryside of China to the big city of Beijing, where forces of modernization are moving faster. The main character, a young woman named Tao, works as a performer at The World Park, an amusement park filled with miniature recreations of famed monuments from around the world. The Eiffel Tower. The great pyramids of Egypt. Big Ben and the London Bridge. New York City, including the two towers of the World Trade Center ("Ours are still standing," remarks one visitor, drawing a sympathetic laugh from the New York audience; the healing has progressed). The park is setting ripe with visual puns, and Jia resorts to them perhaps a few times too many.
Tao carries an on-again, off-again relationship with Taisheng, a security guard at the park and also an emigrant to the city. China is modernizing, but Tao and Taisheng feel trapped, adrift, and disillusioned in Beijing. The most they will ever experience of the world is these reproductions of famous locales, exacting but hollow cultural artifacts. Not only can they not connect with the world, but they can't connect with each other, a common theme in movies set in Communist China. We see one other couple fight bitterly over perceived betrayals, the boyfriend going so far as to set himself on fire at one point to catch her attention. However, since they have only each other, in the very next scene they proudly announce their engagement. Ironically, the most emotionally lyrical communications between youths like Tao and Taisheng are in the form of simple text messages sent to each other via cell phone. Jia emphasizes this by depicting the text messages with colorful, expressive, animated sequences. Perhaps the closest two characters, Tao and a Russian woman who is forced to work at the theme park, don't even speak each other's languages and communicate with hand gestures and body language. Jia doesn't pass on many opportunities for irony, both visual and narrative.
A series of emotionally charged episodes arrive later in the movie, but just when you think they'll lead to some climax or closure, Jia releases the tension again. The movie's stark realism induces in its audience the feeling of aimlessness and disillusionment that the characters themselves feel. It's a style a Hollywood studio would never approve of. The American movie machine believes its audiences want to laugh, cry, cheer, or scream in terror, but never to leave in an existential gloom. That makes The World an ideal entry for a film festival: a movie that will never find American distribution.
A deeper exploration of these characters' emotional origins would relieve some of the movie's dramatic stasis, but on one front the movie is wildly successful. The movie makes no attempt to speak English or to fit in with its American audiences, yet it broadens our conception of the universality of film as a language. Prior to seeing the movie, I had no familiarity whatsoever with emigrant youths to China's major cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, yet by movie's end I felt the bars imprisoning their souls, pushing in.
If The World is representative of China's indie cinema (and in China, that is a tougher economic curse than the title implies in America: it means the government doesn't allow your movie to screen in theaters at all), then Chen Kaige's Together might signify the Chinese movie mainstream. Ironically, in China the mainstream has to emerge from the underground since most of China's most famous directors have had their movies banned by the government (after my description of The World, you might suspect it is another of Jia's underground productions, but in fact it is his first government sanctioned piece).
In Together, another pair of peasants from the countryside make their way to Beijing. A father, Liu Cheng, brings his son Xiaochun to the capitol to compete in a violin competition. The young boy is a gifted player who has won many local honors, and his father harbors high hopes of seeing his son achieve a better life.
The movie is surprisingly, unabashedly sentimental for a Chinese drama. From very early on, the machinery of a familiar plot announces its intentions to run the audience over: simple, honest, and naive country folk eaten up by the big city and corrupted by the pursuit of fame. At times it feels like populist propaganda, especially with the stone-faced acting of real-life violinist but non-actor Tang Yun as the young violin prodigy (his violin playing, on the other hand, is splendid, especially considering how ridiculous how most on-screen violin playing looks), but the movie plows forward with the earnest and pure-hearted determination of a children's fable. Along the way, some welcome humor arrives, unexpectedly, from the director Chen himself playing a ruthless but perceptive and successful violin instructor and by the director's real-life wife Chen Hong as a Lili, a woman who supports herself the beautiful plaything of wealthy society men. She befriends young Xiaochun and adds some much-needed levity with her flamboyant personality.
The movie crescendos with melodramatic plot twists and one grand revelation, but the movie earns those emotional peaks. Anyone watching the entire way will feel them approaching, and those uncomfortable with such a passionate, tearful embrace will have had ample time to turn from the welcoming arms and ample bosom of this open-hearted tale and flee for the exits.