Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Flashback: Air Rifles and Male Ennui - Hu Xinyu's "The Man"

In the course of researching my thesis and book on China’s independent documentary movement I’ve been watching a lot of older Chinese films. I’ve decided to blog about some of them in a series of “Flashback” posts.

First up is the domestic drama of Hu Xinyu’s documentary The Man (Nanrenmen) from 2003.

A typically lackadaisical moment from Hu Xinyu's ode to male ennui, The Man (2003).

Air Rifles and Male Ennui - Hu Xinyu's "The Man"

No matter what culture you’re in, placing members of the same sex together in close quarters for prolonged periods is always a bad idea. Yet it’s the painful dynamics of watching a trio of bored, unfulfilled men cooped up in a tiny apartment in a provincial Chinese city that makes Hu Xinyu’s film The Man such a hypnotically discomforting experience – like a slow-motion train wreck played out over two hours.

The film’s locker-room tone is set early, when we see three men snoozing on a large mattress on the floor. Or maybe it’s three single mattresses pushed together ­­– the bed is such a mess it’s hard to tell. They sleepily shoot the breeze, bemoaning the lack of available sex, until the middle one playfully grabs the crotches of the other two.

From the trio’s aimless conversations we gather the groper, Su, is recently laid-off art teacher, currently staying at the filmmaker’s apartment. The third man is Shi Lin, a local friend who spends a lot of time hanging around the director’s flat. The director Hu Xinyu is also a teacher, but one who habours aspirations to be a filmmaker. He channels these aspirations into recording the aimless lives around him. Interspersed with scenes of the three talking – mainly about women – we see Shi Lin shooting sparrows with an air rifle, while by night the trio indiscriminately consume arthouse films and porn DVDs.

The Man is lifted out of the purely observational realm by Hu Xinyu’s self conscious deployment of dramatic devices. Unusually for a Chinese documentary, there is some incidental music, while half way through the film a shot of Su and Shin Lin wielding the air rifle suddenly dissolves into an action sequence complete with animation. It’s as if Hu can no longer stand the drabness of their lives and needs to liven up their existence, even if it’s only on screen. The excitement quickly fades, however, as we fall back into the plodding rhythms of the men’s daily lives.

The three constantly discuss the movie they’re in, and resentment towards the director from the other two occasionally boils to the surface. At one point Shi Lin complains of Hu’s arrogance, pointing out that while he and Su are struggling to get by, Hu only has to call relatives in the U.S. to get thousands of dollars to help fund his filmmaking activities. Late in the film a frustrated Su pushes the director’s camera aside and demands they both go to a brothel “for release”.

For all its domestic focus, The Man is not without social import. Apart from its rather dark portrait of male subjectivity – especially when left without meaningful activity – the film is a bleak comment on the life options open to ordinary people in second-tier Chinese cities. Admittedly this is hardly an original topic, but it’s rare to see lives on screen that are so utterly banal. Hu Xinyu’s token efforts to liven up the film with dramatic devices, as well as the epic tragedy of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America that we see throughout the film on the apartment’s television, only reinforce what a hopeless task it is generating dramatic meaning in such a featureless environment. As Su comments at one point, “With no financial foundation and power, you can’t do anything.” The emptiness of it all is summed up by the final shot of a mouse, twitching away its last moments of life after being shot by Shi Lin’s air rifle.

Hu Xinyu’s snapshot of grey lives in a featureless city probably appeared more original in 2003 than it does in 2011, as a seemingly endless stream of independent Chinese features have taken up similar themes in the past decade. Yet The Man’s reflexivity and the sheer pointlessness of the subject’s lives makes for strangely engrossing viewing – even if you’re left squirming in your seat for much of the film.

Hu Xinyu’s The Man is available to view online at the China Independent Documentary Archive: www.cidfa.com/modules/watch.php?vid=41
Users need to register with the site before watching.

1 comment:

  1. this is a good story of a film, where all the men are put together.