Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Black, Absurdist Take on Modern China: Zhao Dayong’s The High Life

Recently I had the opportunity to see Zhao Dayong’s The High Life (pictured left) on DVD, my second viewing after a screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival back in April, where the film scooped the FIRPRESCI Critics’ Jury Prize and the Silver Award in the Asian Digital Competition. I’d enjoyed the film in Hong Kong, but as so often happens at festivals there was little time to reflect on it before it was swept away by the sights and sounds of another half dozen movies in the days following. Happily, my positive impression of the film was only reinforced by a second viewing on DVD.

Initially The High Life feels like another portrait of aimless Chinese youth riding in the slipstream of the nation’s economic boom, in this case eking out a living by conning the unemployed out of their cash at a roadside “job agency.” The suckers pay a fee, write down their details, and by night proprietor Jian Ming glues their pictures to the wall above his bed, a gallery of cheated faces gazing blankly over him as he sleeps.

Unlike most films in the “hopeless youth genre” – notably Jia Zhangke’s classic Unknown Pleasures (2002) – Jian Ming and his girlfriend are not residing in one of China’s inland backwaters. In fact they live in Guangzhou, one of the country’s key economic hubs (formerly known in English as Canton). Their apartment is in one of the city’s infamous “urban villages,” former rural settlements long ago swamped by rapid urban expansion. Zhao Dayong effectively captures the cramped conditions of the area, closely following his characters through warrens of narrow alleyways rarely touched by the sun.

Setting is not the only element that differentiates The High Life from most other recent Chinese features. Rather, it's the quality of the performances and, most importantly, an absurdist streak of black humour that sets The Hight Life apart from the tiresome po-faced misery of works like Knitting and Ant City.

It's in the second half that the film's absurdist edge comes to the fore, after Jian Ming is persuaded by an amusingly fast talking friend to get with the “big time” and help run a pyramid scheme. Such setups are notoriously common in China, particularly in the south, where many are drawn into handing over their money and recruiting others on the promise of being able to sell what eventually turns out to be a non-existent product.

When the cops bust the setup, Jian Ming is taken into custody and The High Life changes gear as we enter the dark world of a police detention centre. The prison is overseen by Dian Qiu, a poetry-writing cynic who toys with his prisoners by making them read his biting, highly sexual verse, full of ruminations on the “June 4th incident” (China speak for the Tiananmen Massacre) and denunciations of corrupt officials.

With his quietly bleak outlook and moral ambiguity, Dian is one of the most intriguing and complex characters of recent Chinese cinema. His attraction to one of the female prisoners is portrayed beautifully, our sympathies balanced on the knife edge of their tender but clearly unequal relationship.

The film ends with a small act of casual defiance by Dian against the repressive state he is a part of, and the final scene sees him disappear into the seething crowds around Guangzhou Railway Station, as if Zhao Dayong has set his character free amongst the messy reality of China’s swirling masses. The shot reminded me of the conclusion to Apichatpong Weerasethakul Syndromes and a Century (2006), which similarly ends with a scene of mass urban life playing out oblivious to the film's drama.

The High Life is a surprising, unsettling film, rich in cynical humour about the nature of power, economics and relationships in contemporary China. Following the unveiling of his acclaimed three-hour documentary Ghost Town last year at the New York Film Festival (see my article on the film for RealTime here), Zhao Dayong is rapidly establishing himself as a major rising talent in Chinese cinema. Zhao and his producer David Bandurski are already working on their new feature-length documentary, which they spoke about enthusiastically when I chatted with them at the Hong Kong Film Festival. Although they were unable to disclose any details about their new film, they are clearly a pair to watch.

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