Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Behind Shanghai’s Bright Lights: Teng Yung-Shing’s “Return Ticket”

Qin Hailu as Cai Li, one of China's internal migrants struggling to make ends meet in Teng Yung-Shing's Return Ticket.
Films about China’s vast internal migrant population are nothing new, and the country’s leading contemporary director, Jia Zhangke, has done some of the best films on the topic with The World (Shijie) in 2004 and the wonderful Still Life (Sanxia haoren) in 2006. On the other hand, films about young people (though not necessarily migrants) adrift in China’s rapidly transforming urban landscapes have also made for some of the nation’s dullest cinema. Gao Wendong’s Ant City (Mayi Cun, 2010) is one recent excruciating example that comes to mind. Teng Yung-Shing’s Return Ticket (Dao fu yang liu bai li, 2010) lies somewhere between these two poles. It’s a long way short of Jia Zhangke’s greatest work, but it features enough engaging moments to lift it above the average low-budget miserablist Chinese drama.

One of the things Return Ticket does do well is capture the atmosphere of Shanghai’s crowded colonial era residential areas. The camera frames the characters in the dark, cramped spaces so effectively you feel like you could bang your head with too sudden a movement. The glittering 21st century skyline of Pudong and the grand colonial facades of The Bund may be Shanghai’s public face, but ordinary people, as everywhere in China, still often live in dangerously crowded conditions that provide little space for privacy or comfort.

The lead role here is played sympathetically by Qin Hailu, who also appeared in Zhang Meng’s The Piano in a Factory (Gang de qin, 2010), which I reviewed last August. Qin is a subtle, charismatic performer who launched her career with Fruit Chan’s Durian Durian (Liulian piao piao, 2000), in which she also played an internal migrant, this time in Hong Kong. Since then she has appeared in many films, including Patrick Tam’s After This Our Exile (Fu zi, 2006), but usually playing minor roles. Which is a shame, because Qin manages to convey an effective depth of emotion even when the script gives her little to work with, and I find her face lingers in my mind for days. I hope we can see her matched with a great director in a truly challenging key role sometime in the near future.

Qin Hailu in a pensive moment from Teng Ying-Shing's Return Ticket.

In Return Ticket, Qin plays Cai Li, a small scale entrepreneur who for the past few years has being trying her luck in China’s industrial south – unfortunately to little avail. Arriving in Shanghai, she is reunited with a small circle from her nearby home village, all of them struggling on the lower rungs of the city’s workforce. Guo (Binbin Li) is an affable, slightly roughish bouncer at a local KTV joint (read glorified brothel), whose chief buddy is the mute Jiuzi (Shen Yiquan). The pair hit upon the idea of repairing an old bus to take their fellow Shanghai-dwelling villagers back home for Chinese New Year, and make a few yuan in process. Cai Li gets roped into the scheme, which inevitably doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Apart from Qin Hailu in the lead role, the film’s most effecting performance is from Xie Qin, as Qin’s aging landlord Fang Xiaoyue. Actually Fang is more like a roommate, since the pair share a minute loft wedged above a narrow back alley. Even this tiny space is highly contested, with Xie Qin facing immense pressure from her deceased husband's relatives – who are native Shanghaiese – to give up the loft and “hand it back” to the family. These scenes illustrate that it’s not just the younger generations enduring the hardships, dislocations and cut-throat ethos of urbanisation in modern China.

Return Ticket’s engaging characters are the film’s greatest strength. Less impressive is the story, which is a variation on what is now an old theme, that adds little to existing portraits of China’s urban migrants. The resolution of the subplot involving Fang Xiaoyue’s relationship with her young daughter turns upon a rather ridiculous coincidence, and the film’s conclusion is oddly abrupt and unsatisfying. It almost felt like the director ran out of funds and was forced to sum up the final scenes via an intertitle. I’m sure that wasn’t the case, but whatever the director’s intended effect, it felt like the film simply fizzled out rather reached its intended conclusion.

This is Teng Yung-Shing's second work, following his debut Love at 7-11 (7-Eleven zhi lian) made back in 2003. He comes from a background in television commercials, which has presumably kept him busy in the decade between features, though none of the gloss associated with advertising is evident in Return Ticket. Teng is from Taiwan, and his debut was made there, so it’s interesting that he’s now chosen to work on the mainland with all its myriad restrictions. Return Ticket is far from a master work, but the film’s evocative sense of place and some nicely turned performances show the budding director’s potential.

Return Ticket screened at the unfortunately named Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival in Melbourne on February 17. It is also currently screening at Beijing’s BC MOMA Cinema – see here for upcoming sessions.

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