Issue 2/2001 - Du bist die Welt

Blurred Boundaries, Impossible Home and Sexualized Modernity

On contemporary Chinese cinema

Bérénice Reynaud

we\'re exiled everywhere...
Hong Kong becomes one type of
heartburn on a map
called home1

On July 1, 1997, I was in Beijing. The people I was hanging around with - Sixth Generation directors, underground video documentarists - had assured me that, for most ordinary Chinese citizens, this was a non-event, except for the 4-day vacation granted by the government: »they know that it won\'t be easier for them to travel to Hong Kong.« I watched the parade on TV, and it resembled any other Communist-kitsch extravaganza, except for the performance of Tan Dun\'s symphony. During the Cultural Revolution, Tan had been separated from his educated parents and sent to live in the countryside with his grandmother. He nonetheless managed to study violin, and later, came to New York, where he was »discovered« playing his instrument in the street. A serious, successful experimental composer, Tan has now become a pop culture name after receiving in Oscar for his score in Ang Lee\'s »Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.« Yet, on July 1, 1997, he was on Tiananmen Square, conducting a rather pompous piece of music, to celebrate China\'s renewed sense of wholeness. Such is the meaning of home - you love rebuilding it even if you no longer live in it.

While my culturally hip friends didn\'t seem to care about the retrocession - other things were important to them: access to Western technology, cultural products, capuccino machines and clothes. That summer Wu Wenguang, the »leader« of the »Beijing New Documentary Movement,« organized a conference on documentary issues, with a particular emphasis on the work of Frederick Wiseman and other verite filmmakers. What is at stake here is reclaiming/recovering the real - in contradistinction with socialist realism. Johan van der Keuken said »it is difficult to touch the real,« and this is particularly true in China where the meaning of the word has been obscured by layers of ideological distortions, historical repressions, and, last but not least, the imported tropes of Western modernity that diffuse »Chineseness« into a transnational urban culture.

The two Opium Wars, followed by the foreign presence in port cities »concessions«, the loss of Taiwan to Japan in 1895 and the British colonization of Hong Kong in 1841, caused deep narcissistic wounds in the Chinese psyche. Later, with Deng Xiao Ping\'s »open door policy« of the late 1970s, Hong Kong became the impossible lure of modernity. The 1980 organization of a »Special Economic Zone« in the border town of Shenzhen created a porous area where Hong Kong residents and Chinese citizens can meet, and it offers a glimpse of what a post-socialist future may be: salaries are five times higher than in the PRC, but rents three times cheaper than in Hong Kong. Goods are smuggled, sold and exchanged from both sides of the border, Hong Kong businessmen keep mistresses, open karaoke bars, Chinese buy apartments. In »Platform« (»Zhang Tai«, 2000), Jia Zhangke acutely points at the importance of Shenzhen for the generation that came of age in the 1980s: Shenzhen-manufactured bell-bottom pants are imported to Guangzhou, and if you want your »Song and Dance Company« to really look cool, you advertise it as coming from Shenzhen. Similarly, it is also from the border town that the illegal mainland family in Fruit Chan\'s »Little Cheung« (»Xilu Xiang«, 1999) and »Durian, Durian« (»Liulian Piao Piao«, 2000) come from - and eventually return after their deportation; Ah Fan\'s one-legged father makes a living smuggling cigarettes across the border. Yet the films also stress that Mainlanders remain unwanted immigrants in Hong Kong. Shenzhen is still an ambiguous, transitional space.

As the frontiers between China and the West are becoming blurred, new boundaries, this time internal to the country, reappear. Recent surveys show that the inequality between rich and poor is »close to the international danger level«2 As cities are becoming more modernized, the gap between country and urban living has never been so great. Thousands of young people flock to the cities, with only their muscular strength (or, for women, their sex-appeal), to eke out a living as window cleaners, messenger boys, street hawkers, domestic workers, karaoke hostesses or prostitutes. Written and directed by Tang Danian - a former screenwriter for Zhang Nuanxin\'s »Good Morning Beijing« (»Beijing nizao«, 1990) who also collaborated with Zhang Yuan and Cui Jian on »Beijing Bastards« (»Beijing Zazhong«, 1993) - »City Paradise« (»Du Shi Tiang Tang«, 1999) addresses what a powerful and dangerous magnet Beijing is for these young transient workers arriving from the countryside with powerful sexual desires and inarticulate ambitions. Tang follows the broken dreams of Dasheng who unwittingly destroys the lives of people around him rather than being confined to an arranged marriage, filial piety and backward living condition in his native village. »Men Men Women Women« (»Nan Nan Nü Nü«, 1999), by Liu Bingjian, is also about a young peasant, but with a twist. Homosexuality is what brought Xiao Bo to Beijing, and gradually the city becomes an open field for exciting possibilities and chance encounters, but also a sore reminder of homophobia, when his employer\'s boorish husband tries to molest him and then fires him. The film was written by Cui Zi\'en, a former teacher of Liu and Tang at the Beijing Film Academy (where his open homosexuality caused him to be fired), who also acts the part of a flamboyant talk-show host.

In her superb »I Love Beijing« (»Xiari Nuanyangyang«, 2001), Ning Ying pays homage to Cui Zi\'en by casting him in a small, yet remarkable part, in a disco: a bartender asks him if he\'s a man or a woman (blurred boundaries again) and Cui turns the table by making a pass at him. »I Love Beijing« sees the capital from the point of view of a native Beijinger, but it is a city undergoing such tremendous changes that it seems empty at the core. Ning does not dwell on picturesque streets or back alleys, but on large, traffic-jammed avenues, industrial lots, luxury hotels, trendy restaurants and discos, high-rise housing projects or distant suburbs. Her protagonist, the cab-driver Dezi is in-between - his driving long hours has eradicated the difference between night and day for him, he\'s constantly in motion within and without the city, his hard-core desire to make money leads him across several social classes, where he is a silent witness of their corruption, sexual license or abject misery, and his erratic sexuality is shared between several women. The film starts with the divorce procedure initiated by his first wife, Linfong - a former country girl he had met at a bus stop - as the couple is still living together with Dezi\'s mother. Meanwhile, he pays for the rent for his waitress girlfriend, Xiaoxue, who uses the apartment to receive her large, hick-town family. Then he gets involved with an academic\'s daughter, a librarian who dreams of going abroad to buy couture clothes and ends up introducing him to his second wife, another country girl.

Ning masterfully captures the alienation of Dezi\'s lifestyle, the meanness and solitude of Beijing streets, the hidden despair of these men who have nothing but hard work to show for. One night, Dezi gets beaten up by a thug when he asks payment for having driven the man\'s gang all day. He takes the punishment but protests when they threaten to trash his cab. »This is my company car... This car is my life!« Then, in a silent moment of self-reckoning, he gets up, only to face a crowd of onlookers who curiously stare at him - a moment similar to the last shot of Jia Zhangke\'s »Xiao Wu« (1997), when the protagonist, handcuffed to a pole after being pinched for pick-pocketing, is exposed to a similar unsympathetic gaze.

An interestingly hybrid project, Wang Xiaoshuai\'s »Beijing Bicycle« (»Shuqi Suide Danche«, 2000) was penned by Tang Danian and Wang, with input by the film\'s two Taiwanese co-producers, critic Peggy Chiao and filmmaker Hsi Hsiao-ming who, in collaboration with Pyramide Production in Paris, have initiated the pan-Chinese »Tale of Three Cities« (Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei) series3 Compared to De Sica\'s »Bicycle Thieves« for its subject-matter (a bicycle messenger, Guei, loses his way of making a living when his bike is stolen), the film\'s references are elsewhere4 Guei\'s country-boy stubbornness is very close to that of Gong Li in Zhang Yimou\'s »The Story of Qiu Ju« (»Qiu Ju da guansi«, 1992)5 while his working experience is similar to that of Dezi in »I Love Beijing«: like him, he contracts a complex arrangement with his employer - his vehicle is both his and the company\'s property. And, like him, he comes into contact with the city\'s super-rich - entrepreneurs or gangsters - only to be ridiculed or exploited. One day, looking for a »Mr. Zhang« in a bathhouse, he is forced to disrobe and take a shower; while the scene might be funny, it is precisely during that time that his bicycle is stolen. Focusing on a permanent circulation of objects - cigarettes, fancy clothes, bricks - Wang\'s elegant mise en scene turns Guei\'s bicycle into a transitional object, a signifier of loss, longing and desire. It reappears as the proud property of Jian, a cocky schoolboy who may or may not have stolen it, or bought it with money stolen from his father. The bicycle is stolen back and forth several times - until a harrowing moment when Guei cries and screams so loudly, grasping it, in front of the gang of schoolboys friends of Jian determined to take it away from him, that they have to relent. The bike will be shared - and the story unexpectedly ends with a Hitchcockian transference of guilt - when a brick similar to the one used by Jian to knock his girlfriend\'s new amour turns as a deadly weapon in Guei\'s hands.

In post-1997 China, a bike is the first step towards the acquisition of material wealth that the country is longing for after years of socialism - as well as a way to (try to) get girls. »Durian, Durian«, Fruit Chan\'s companion piece to »Little Cheung«, and his first foray into Mainland China, is also built around a transitional object (or maybe a McGuffin), the durian, a prickly fruit originating from Southeast Asia, sold in Hong Kong but unknown in the Northern part of China. Smelling like »stinking tofu«, the durian is an »acquired taste« and alludes to the existence of a large diasporic Chinese community in Malaysia and Singapore. It is a metaphor for both displacement and bountiful opportunities abroad. However, the first time the heroine, Yan, encounters it, it\'s through an (off-screen) act of violence. The young pimp that followed her is knocked on the head with the fruit. Later, the little girl Ah Fan, who had witnessed the attack without recognizing the fruit, is offered, to her dismay, a durian for her birthday by her father. Much later, when Yan returns to Northern China, after her visa has expired, and Ah Fan and her family had been deported back to Shenzhen, the little girl will mail a durian to her older friend, who is trying to readjust to life back home.

The storylines of »Little Cheung« and »Durian, Durian« overlap. The first film was centered around the friendship between the title character - a young boy making deliveries in the working-class neighborhood of Mongkok for his father\'s restaurant - and Ah Fan, whom he enlists as an associate/helper in his rounds. Apart from local (not-so-smart) gangsters and neighbors, Cheung\'s life is filled with immigrants, including Ah Fan, his Filipino nanny, and the mainland whores whose food he delivers. »Durian, Durian« develops the story of one of these whores, Yan, who tirelessly turns tricks throughout Mongkok, alternatively pretending she\'s from Sichuan, Hunan, the Northeast, Shanghai or even »a local.« Like Little Cheung, she meets Ah Fan doing dishes for her mother in a back alley, smartly wearing the kind of rubber gloves that are missing in Northern China, and they become friends. In her last day in Hong Kong, she breaks a record by turning 39 tricks.

Back home in the quiet, snowy dreariness of Mu Dan River, in the Northeast, Yan is a »nice girl« who lives at home, gets married, then divorced, and dreams of investing the money she\'s brought from Hong Kong in a small business. The second part of the film displays a completely different rhythm, whose poignancy comes from the tension we feel between the heroine\'s uneventful existence, and her memories - triggered by small incidents (»taking a shower« like so many times with her tricks; being called on her mobile by the Hong Kong madam while in the middle of divorce proceedings). »Durian, Durian« is not a melodrama. Nobody discloses Yan\'s secret; she stays home - forever marked but maybe not defiled by her encounter with venality. Maybe her story is so banal there is nothing to disclose.

The plight of girls from China\'s small towns who resort to sell their bodies expresses a world-wide division of labor between rich and poor countries, affluent and underprivileged classes. Sex was always for sale in Hong Kong, as in any colonial society - but it was a forbidden commodity in socialist China. Like in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall fell, the first victims of the new market economy in China are women. Karaoke bars are opening throughout the country, and girls too plain to work as hostesses open small »barbershops« where they offer private massage to their male clients. »Xiao Wu« takes a casual approach to prostitution - as one of many elements in the moral crisis affecting the new generations. Xiao Wu\'s affair with Mei Mei is doomed from the start, but he does not become angry with her, even when she turns to be mildly mythomaniac and leaves with a rich karaoke customer. The acuity of Jia\'s vision about the roots of evil overlaps with that of his anti-hero; a displaced peasant\'s son turned pick-pocket with a code of honor, Xiao Wu returns to Fenyang, his hometown in Shanxi province, to discover that the new market economy has made him obsolete and that his ironical stance towards life further isolates him. Jia has a gift to work with his actors (all non-professionals) at a very physical level, which enables him to locate the site of China\'s contemporary malaise in the body of the protagonists. It is the way they smoke, move, sing or refuse to sing, start awkward gestures or look at their naked self in a private moment that becomes the sign of their spiritual crisis: they »take refuge in solitude which is a substitute for dignity.«6

In his thesis film at the Beijing Film Academy, »Xiao Shan Going Home« (1995), Jia had already entrusted the main role to Wang Hongwei, whose falsely cool gait, eyeglasses and bad haircut are becoming an icon for China\'s difficult modernity. Shot in black and white but in direct sound, in the constant bustle of the streets, »Xiao Shan« follows the protagonist\'s last days in Beijing, his uneasy relationships with girls or buddies of various social strata, from students to thugs. Wherever he is, Wang seems out of sync with his environment; he is himself the McGuffin of the fiction - essential, ever-present and never explained. Jia\'s third collaboration with Wang is »Platform« (»Zhan Tai«, 2000), financed with a combination of funds from Hong Kong, Japan and France. A fascinating film of epic dimension7, it follows the lives of young »cultural workers«, still from Fenyang, from 1979 to 1989, as their performance troupe evolves from Maoist propaganda theater to vaguely sexy Canto-pop extravaganza. Wang is Cui Mingliang, whose complicated romance with fellow troupe member Yin Rujian, a stern cop\'s daughter, unfolds through many turns, even after she leaves the group and becomes a tax collector. Other couples are made and unmade, as the troupe fends its way through inhospitable landscapes, hick towns and corrupt petty officials whom they have to grease to obtain the permit to perform. Somewhere along the way, as privatization and commercialization become the norm, as young love is considered a punishable offence by the authorities, the protagonists lose their innocence and enthusiasm, and gradually become resigned to ordinariness. As the film ends before the new market economy, there\'s no karaoke bar or prostitute, and at the beginning, a conversation between two girlfriends, Yin Rujan and Zhong Ping, reveals how painfully ignorant they are of the »facts of life.« This becomes ridiculous when the troupe is asked to contribute to the birth control campaign, and, later, poignant when Zhong Ping is faced with the necessity of an abortion. Later, to spice the performances, as their regular female players have all gone, the troupe hires two semi-exotic dancers in alluring costumes.

In this dense, multi-layered work, often shot in long takes, drowning the protagonists\' personal dilemmas in the larger picture of the town or social group, cultural references abound. The title itself refers to a rock song famous in China during the 1980s: »our hearts are waiting, waiting forever.« It also includes an homage to two kinds of films that have taken Chinese spectators away from Maoist propaganda flicks: Indian musicals ? India being the leader of non-aligned countries and Chairman Mao himself being quite fond of Raj Kapoor\'s »Awara« (1951), they were for a while the only foreign movies allowed in China - and Wu Tianming\'s »Reverberations of Life« (»Shenghuo de chanyin«, 1979), one of the first post-Cultural Revolution films to criticize political interference in private lives, via an attack against the Gang of Four. Wu produced the first films of the Fifth Generation, before being exiled from China after Tiananmen Square, and this allusion is a way for Zhang to pay homage to him, and state that the opposition between the Fifth (Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Ning Ying) and the Sixth Generation (Zhang Yuan, Wang Xiaoshuai, He Jianjun, Tang Danian, Liu Bingjian, Jia himself) is not so important.

In the modern era, »Platform« finds a powerful echo in Wu Wenguang\'s »Jiang Hu: Life on the Road« (1999) - itself a tour to force, for Wu and his reduced crew lived with the members of a »Song and Dance Company« for months and months as they set up and then dismounted their huge tent in various locations throughout China. Times have changed, and the spectacles are now more openly erotic, showing bikini-clad girls dancing at the sound of pop music. The performers are young farmers who find life too hard at home and have joined the troupe with the hope of making a better living. This hope is slowly but surely crushed by the troupe\'s growing insolvency: salaries are not paid for months, and whatever money is made is used to bribe officials and the police and get protection against local thugs.

A seasoned video documentary director, Wu had gathered international attention by following the lives of marginalized artists, in verite-style, in »Bumming in Beijing - The Last Dreamers« (»Liulang Beijing - Zhuihou De Mengxiangzhe«, 1990); with this later work, he has remained faithful to the longer form (the piece is 149 minute long), to be able to capture his subjects\'s slightest moves and changes of mood. A lot of the shooting is done under the tattered tent, a hybrid space at the boundary between the public and the private, littered with suitcases, clothes, remnants of meals, which serves as both living quarters for the troupe and performance space at night. The travellers seem free like birds, while in fact, without salary, they are trapped in a strange no-exit where personal tensions erupt, couples frolic and quarrel, and a telling moment happens in front of a portrait of Maggie Cheung reproduced on a paper bag. This was the icon of their dream, of the showbusiness they once naively hoping to partake in, while they remain, in Wu\'s words, »on the edge of the world - of the modern, happy, wealthy life they were yearning for.«8 Maybe these anonymous, unsung performers, are the true heroes of China\'s unsteady fight with modernity and market economy - at a time when travelling is possible (the old residence permits are no longer necessary) but still difficult, when sex sells but is still suspicious, when Hong Kong is reunited to China but most Mainland residents can only dream about it through the unattainable image of a movie star.



1 Yau Ching, »The Impossible Home«, Youth Literary Bookstore, Hong Kong, 2000, 30-31.

2 »Premier Zhu Rongji warned that a 1999 survey put China\'s Gini coefficient, an international index for income inequality, at 0.39, \'close to the international danger level\' of 0.4. He should be so lucky. Most experts agree that a more accurate estimate of the current figure is 0.458, while some claim the true figure is as high as 0.59. On the Gini Coefficient, zero represents perfect equality and one represents perfect inequality.« Calum McLeod, »China\'s poverty time bomb,« in: »South China Morning Post«, April 18 2001, 13.

3 Lin Cheng-sheng\'s »Betelnut Beauty« (»Ai Ni Ai Wo«, 2000), also shown in Berlin, is part of this series, which is supposed to include a new film by Hong Kong\'s Yu Lik-wai - director of »Love Will Tear Us Apart« (»Tiang shang ren jian«, 1999, an interesting fiction about Mainland immigrants in Hong Kong) and DP of Jian Zhangke\'s two features, »Xiao Wu« and »Platform.«

4 In particular, the Chinese title, »A Seventeen Year-Old\'s Bike,« while alluding to the protagonists\' youth, brings strange echoes of Mitsuo Yanagimachi\'s »A Nineteen-Year-Old\'s Map« (»Jukyusai No Chizu,« 1979), centered around a young man delivering newspapers on his bike.

5 It is Guei\'s manager who makes this comparison, as a way of mocking the young man for his »country-like« manners, and also because the film was a big hit in China. A more accurate reference would have been a later film by Zhang Yimou, »Keep Cool« (»You hua haohao shuo,« 1997), in which the single-mindedness of the protagonist (played by Jiang Wen) is linked to the construction of male identity in an urban setting.

6 Jian Zhangke, program notes for »Xiao Wu,« Hong Kong International Film Festival, Urban Council, 1998, 65.

7 The cut shown at the UCLA Film Archives in December 2000 and the Berlin Film Festival in February 2001 was 192 minutes - subsequently the film was cut to 155 minutes (as in the version shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival).

8 Wu Wenguang, program notes, Panorama Section, Berlin Film Festival, 2000.