Chinese short films at the Worldwide Short Film Festival
Toronto, 4-9 June, 2002
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
|Complete list of films from China:
Wrinkles of August (Bayue zhouwen, 2001) 35mm, 38 min
Eleven (Shiyi sui, 2000) 35mm, 15 min
Runaway (Dai bi, 1997) 35mm (shown on video), 30 min
Elder Sister (Jiejie, 2002) 16mm, 14 min
Blooming Flowers in Springtime (Chun nuan hua kai, 2001) 35mm, 38 min
Stories in Mountain City (Shan cheng jishi, 2001) beta, 12 min
Criminal (Fanzui fenzi, 2000) 35mm, 30 min
Hot Summer (Xiari huanghun, 2000) 16mm, 8 min
Gold Coin of Heaven (Tiantang jinbi, 2001), beta, 8 min
The 2002 edition of the Toronto-based Worldwide Short Film Festival (WSFF) showcased a selection of new short films made in the People's Republic of China over the last six years. Four of the nine selections are thirty-minute long 35mm graduation pieces from students of the Beijing Film Academy; the rest are shorter works from various sources, including two videos from a newly established film school in Chongqing, Sichuan Province. I'll discuss four of the most interesting films below.
The two best films of the group fit comfortably into the predominant tone of alienated post-industrial ennui that these shorts, as a group, seem to express: Zhang Lu's Eleven, and Yang Chao's Runaway.
Eleven, which played at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, is the first short film of director Zhang Lu. He is a forty-year-old writer whose works engage with issues of cultural difference stemming from his own background as a member of the Korean cultural minority in China. Eleven is a fourteen-minute long vignette, virtually silent, of an eleven-year-old boy's encounter with a group of soccer players his own age. Set in an arid, post-industrially ugly wasteland dominated by a vast slag heap, the film opens with the boy and an older man, who might be his father, emerging from a railway tunnel and arriving near a small hut. The man replaces a light bulb (shown in extreme close-up), settles himself into a chair outside, and seems to fall asleep. The boy sets up a few rocks as goalposts, and watches a group of kids appear with a soccer ball. They practice; he fetches the ball. He watches from the slag heap. They call him to play goaltender. He stands, oddly passive, as they score through his legs. They yell at him; he kicks the ball through his own goal. They pile on top of him and seem to beat him. At night, he digs a hole, and puts the ball in it.. The man, now awake, arrives with a massive bulldozer, and fills the whole with dirt. Credits roll.
There is no dialogue: just shouting boys, and occasional scraps of quietly effective atonal music on the soundtrack. The camera barely moves: most scenes are filmed in a single long take, at a substantial distance from the action. The director's eye and sense of timing feel masterful: framing, of tiny figures against grim, ugly industrial backgrounds, manages to be starkly, almost classically beautiful. Scenes are cut to an idiosyncratic rhythm that is provocatively slow, yet feels absolutely right. There is something here reminiscent of Chen Kaige's King of the Children (Haizi wang, 1987): a monumental, iconic use of visual symbolism, and an appreciation of the power of silence and emptiness that can, paradoxically, fill a screen with a sense of poetry. Without even beginning to unravel the dreamlike symbolism of the peace, I'm deeply impressed. Programmers take note: Zhang Lu is currently working on his first feature film, which, on the evidence of Eleven, should be well worth tracking.
Yang Chao's Runaway, winner of the Cinefondation 3d Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, is a thirty-minute, non-stop, relentlessly downbeat portrait of a young misfit's failure at work, at love, at school, and at home. Lu Lin is a maintenance worker in a railway yard. But, instead of devoting himself to work, he mostly sleeps, reads, and occasionally fights. His supervisor warns him that he is about to be fired, which angers his father, who retired early to give the job to his son. Lu Lin wants to join a basketball team, but has neither the skill nor the permission of his supervisors. The girl he seems to be obsessed with is flirting with someone else. He dreams of entering an aviation academy, but the closest he gets is to press his face against the Institute's fence, listening to the roar of aircraft engines within.
Nonstop grimness; nothing but failure in sight. Although we've seen this subject handled with greater variety and energy in many examples of sixth generation cinema, Yang Chao brings an intriguing hypnotic obsessiveness to his subject. The constant hammering of train wheels (part of the testing regimen) sounds like a musical cry for attention, the throttled lament of the otherwise inarticulate Lu Lin for himself and his generation. The camera often stands back, pinning distant figures in strikingly designed geometric grids and perspectives. Or else it tracks relentlessly, stalking Lu Lin like the omnipresent supervision that will not tolerate his idleness. One has the impression that this idleness is more than laziness: that it constitutes some sort of mute refusal to belong, to fit in, to play by society's rules.
Chang Zheng's Blooming Flowers in Springtime (38 min., 35 mm) tells the story of a young deaf-mute couple who decide to have a son, and the frustrations and rewards that result from their choice. Exquisitely beautiful cinematography at the service of rather conventional, deliberately paced storytelling: it is a pleasure to discover such accomplished control of lighting, framing, and mise-en-scène in the work of student filmmakers. This film, their Beijing Film Academy graduation project, attests to the continuing high level of craft training offered by China's premiere film school: cinematographers Qu Linan, Wang Yiwei, Shen Qiao, and Luo Pan deserve special notice for their assured work. The final shot, a breathtaking, agonizingly slow zoom into an almost empty courtyard was simply astonishing. It focuses all the disparate frustration, yearning, and beauty scattered throughout the previous 35 minutes into one long daringly open-ended gesture that mixes comfort and disquiet in equal measure. These are filmmakers to look for in the future: Chang Zheng is currently directing a TV series, and has a feature film in preparation.
Gold Coin of Heaven, Ying Liang's eight-minute Wong Kar-wai-esque video romp through a poor young man's picaresque misadventures, was the most fun of this set of shorts. During what looks like a police interrogation, "Chen Fu" seems to recall a whirlwind hour of his life, in which he loses a treasured family heirloom (the coin of the title), the affection of his materialistic girlfriend, his lunch, his freedom, and quite possibly his life. Whip pans, droll intertitles, jazzy montage, and a grab bag of spiffy camera effects conspire to enliven a cartoon-like story, and to show off the abundant technical skills of the film's talented director. All the more impressive since this is a freshman work. Ying Liang completed it (and a second video work, Stories in Mountain City, also at the WSFF) in his first year at Chongqing Film Academy, a two-year old film school associated with Chongqing University.
The WSFF's selection process makes it difficult to know how representative these films are of what young filmmakers are experimenting with in China today. The festival's Beijing-based advisor, Zhu Xiaoyi, supplied local programmers with about twenty short films, from which the festival chose these nine. So what a Toronto audience could see -- a preponderance of stories of ennui-drenched youth, socially alienated in quasi-violent urban settings -- may represent what western programmers look for in Chinese films, or may be what's on offer from China right now. Perhaps there is even some happy coincidence between the two.
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