Thursday, September 27, 2012

Caged Interactions and Silent Tears – Zhao Dayong’s "Rough Poetry"

Sometimes a film that is initially underwhelming lingers in your mind, the echo of the images slowly transforming into more than they appeared in the moment of viewing. Zhao Dayong’s 50-minute Rough Poetry (2009) is, as its title implies, a unpolished experiment more than a fully fledged movie. But there is something in its meandering, apparently unscripted conversations and lingering close ups that resonated for days after I watched it.

Zhao Dayong is one of the major talents of China’s independent film world, having turned out several acclaimed documentaries – Street Life (2006) and Ghost Town (2008) – as well as a feature film of dark satirical humour with The High Life (2010, reviewed here). Rough Poetry is something of a sketch of The High Life’s second half, which focuses on a charismatic poetry-writing cop (played by Shen Shaoqiu) with a penchant for flirting with prisoners. Rough Poetry features the same character, locked in a cage with a range of other ordinary-looking people from the street, including a feisty retiree, a young prostitute, and a silent figure in sunglasses who may or may not be a mafia boss.

We’re plunged directly into this world with no explanation or preamble, leaving viewers to puzzle out the situation. Are these actors and/or ordinary people randomly thrown together in a caged set? Or are they real prisoners mixing with an actor masquerading as a cop? The glances at the camera and the unthreatening atmosphere suggest the former, but the setup is never explained. The group appear to be strangers to each other, and the camera traces their apparently unplanned interactions from outside the bars, like a microscope observing specimens on a slide. Some of the exchanges are amusing, others quietly absorbing. Much of the chatter is aimless and dull.

After half an hour of conversation, we cut to some stagey long shots of the cage, with the “prisoners” arranged in various configurations on the floor and along the back wall. Eventually they all begin to chant “We want out!”

Finally, there is a series of mid-shots of each character, staring down the lens before a wall graffitied with the policeman’s poetry. Several of the figures begin to cry silently as they stare at the camera. And then the film ends.

It’s a work wide open to interpretation. Is it a comment on the caged nature of Chinese society under an authoritarian system? A more humanistic reflection on the way people crammed into China’s megalopolises are held apart by so many social, economic and political forces? Or is it simply about the possibilities that open up when random people, unlikely to otherwise meet, are placed together and encouraged to interact? Rough Poetry is an experiment that does not quite work, yet there is something strangely provocative and haunting in the final faces with silent tears dripping on to the prison floor. It’s quite different to Zhao Dayong’s other work, although there is some obvious overlap with The High Life. It’s also very different from the naturalistic realism of most of China’s independent cinema. Such stylistic variation isn’t a bad thing, and is an intriguing experiment, even if it doesn’t entirely succeed.

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