Thursday, August 18, 2011

Vacant Human Shells – Li Hongqi's “Winter Vacation”

"I want to be an orphan" – the amusing child character from Li Hongqi's Winter Vacation.

Chinese cinema is no stranger to deadpan urban dramas, but few have matched the ultra-minimalism of Li Hongqi's Winter Vacation (Han jia, 2010), which I caught recently at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Set in yet another bleak northern town, Li's players depict the repetitive motions of their senseless lives as if all emotion has been sucked out of them, leaving them as vacant human shells without apparent motivation for any of their actions.

Despite the drama's barren atmosphere, Li's flattened approach makes for some surprisingly amusing moments, particularly in the interactions between an old man and his small grandson – the only figure in the film who expresses any desire to escape the life-sucking vacuum of the featureless town. At one point a young friend asks the little boy what he wants to be when he grows up. “An orphan,” he replies without hesitation.

The bleak surrounds of Li Hongqi's Winter Vacation.

I haven't seen Li's earlier features – So Much Rice (Hao duo da mi, 2005) and Routine Holiday (Huangjin zhou, 2008) – but I gather they evoke a similarly straight-faced absurdism and humour. I did catch his documentary Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse? (Women li fengren yuan jiujing you duo yuan?) at the Hong Kong Film Festival this year, and found it excruciating. I was attracted to the film by its focus on Beijing band PK14, who I saw play a couple of times when I was living in China's capital. While the film mostly comprises images of the band on the road, all the synch sound is replaced by a cacophony of animal noises. As friend of mine commented, it's like a conceptual art work with a bad concept.
Winter Vacation is certainly a superior film, but it still felt like a work straining for an artistic significance it never quite attains. Li certainly captures the chronic crisis of meaning in modern China, which has seen many withdraw into a state of total apathy. He also pointedly evokes the empty cliches that stand in for real political and civic life in China. When one kid in the film announces his decision to leave school, a friend asks him what he'll do. “Strive for socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he amusingly replies.

Although Li informs his drama with a wry humour that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries, he's hardly the first to depict the emptiness of life in third-tier Chinese cities, and everything in Winter Vacation felt a tad obvious. Zhang Meng's Piano in a Factory – also at the Melbourne festival this year – plays out in a similar setting, and in many ways is a more conventional film. But Zhang at least attempts to push the miserabilist urban genre by asking “Where do we go from here?” In contrast, Li depicts a familiar conundrum with a droll humour, but otherwise adds little to what we've already seen in countless other titles.

The Canadian online film journal Cinema Scope has a long interview with director Li Hongqi here.

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