Opening shot: a room where Chinese women are assembling something shiny. A woman’s voice stumbles as she reads aloud a book of poems condemning corrupt bureaucrats and their cheap-looking mistresses. Uniformed guards stand and watch. On the soundtrack we hear an odd crinkling sound. It takes time to realize its the metallic material the women are folding into what appears to be gaudy party decorations.
CUT to a street scene. A bored looking man sits at a table on a sidewalk. He offers to register people looking for work, promising them for a fee he’ll send their forms to employers. Several migrant workers bargain, pay cash, fill out the forms, affix a photograph.
But the man is a grifter. A cop comes by and the man pays him off. Later the man goes home and affixes the photographs of the unemployed to his wall. Another sucker, he tells his girlfriend, who smokes on the bed in his spartan, otherwise unfurnished apartment.
So opens Zhao Dayong’s quirky and deliberately surreal first feature. Zhao is primarily known for his documentaries, including the extraordinary Ghost Town, which documents life in southwest China’s border towns and villages, where many ethnic minorities live and try to find work.
In his first fictional feature, The High Life, Zhao has given his film the look and feel of a documentary as he mixes actors (all nonprofessional) with real people and street scenes. Whereas this technique has been widely used in China at least since Zhang Yimou’s The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhao’s film feels very different from any other contemporary Chinese films I’ve ever seen.
By his own admission, the story is “surreal,” mixing realistic and completely impossible scenarios. Audaciously, Zhao drops his first protagonist half way through the movie and instead picks up the story of a male prison guard in a women’s prison. The guard likes to write poetry . . . about official corruption, June 4th (the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, as it’s known in the West), and his own sense of despair before society’s many ills. He forces his prisoners to recite the poems and even memorize them. In a scene that mocks contemporary police interrogations in China, the guard forces the grifter to read a poem and then critique it.
Zhao’s film is not going to be appreciated by everyone. At one showing at the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring (2011), Zhao said he knew it had no chance of commercial success: “It’s not beautiful and it has no story.” (Many would disagree with that statement.)
What it does have is attitude. His editing, gritty cityscapes and urban soundtrack made me think of early Martin Scorsese. As in Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. Definitely not The Age of Innocence or Shutter Island. Zhao’s unusual choice of camera angles, where the viewer watches characters askance, glimpses through doorways or else peeks over their shoulders reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
At the San Francisco screening, I asked Zhao if he was worried how China’s offiicials and censors would react to a film that so daringly directly addresses contemporary issues that are verboten in Chinese state-sponsored films: corruption, rape, prostitution, crime, even June 4th. He said (in Mandarin), “My film’s an underground film. No one will see it. The censors don’t care.” He explained that he and his friends show each other’s films in small private screenings, even in bars or restaurants, but not in regular theaters. That’s too bad, because Zhao’s sensibility would provide Chinese cinema with a welcome dose of street cred.
Western critics (and Chinese officials) may prefer the artful, slow pace of directors like Jia Zhangke whose more statically framed films are quite pretty, but those films seem anemic compared to the restless, nervous energy of THE HIGH LIFE.
dGenerate Films (his distributor in US) Profile of Zhao Dayong
New York Times article about Zhao Dayong and his documentary “Ghost Town”: Times profile of Zhao
Electric Sheep magazine interview with Zhao Dayong: Interview with Zhao Dayong
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