Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2011 3:04 pm 
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Much ado; but then, not so much

Hongqi Li, who has been a hit at the Locarno festival, reminds me of the ultra-dry Swedish director Roy Andersson, but without the production values, the variety of settings and characters, or the momentum. As with Andersson's You the Living, which was in the Rome festival in 2007, the scenes are a series of vignettes with no strong connecting storyline. (Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki are also kindred spirits.) Winter Vacation focuses on a group of teenage boys in a generic nowhere land of modern China -- it's Inner Mongolia, but the director deliberately chose shots that could be almost anywhere -- who are frozen in boredom and inertia so stylized it is, occasionally, quite funny. But this is Beckett (one can't help thinking of him too) without the wit or eloquence. Hontqi Li's people stand and stare at each other for a long time before they speak. Very often they just stare into space rather than at each other. There are always, always very long pauses between lines of dialogue.

These kids have no radio, video games, no iPhones or MP3, no TV -- except one that keeps showing Hongqi Li's previous feature (this is his fourth), Routine Holiday (2008). A fun thing to do is to stand over one of their pals (he's their sort of ring leader) and watch him sleep. And he does a lot of that. To make it really exciting someone holds a small pinwheel in front of the boy's mouth so as he sleeps his exhalations make the wheel spin round.

A girl brings one of the boys a cap she has knitted for him. Four or five of his friends are standing around and he's on his bed. He turns the cap over in his hands, manipulates it, pulls it, flips it again. Then he passes it on to another boy, who does the same, and so on, around the room, and then back to the boy the cap was made for. "I'm too young to need a cap like this," he says.

A town market in a desolate square. A long range of tables are sparsely arranged with vegetables of various kinds. A woman comes up and goes over every cabbage at one table. The seller challenges her to buy or go away, and she goes away. Off behind, she comes to another table full of cabbages and again goes over them, taking up one and stripping it of most its leaves. Then she hands it to the seller. They haggle over the price, based on the weight. She cheats him by saying she hasn't the right change. Then as she puts the cabbage in her bag, she adds all the leaves she stripped off earlier, saying it would be a shame to let them go to waste.

A little boy sits in the living room with his grandfather. He asks him why he doesn't go to work and he says he's retired. What does that mean? asks the boy. That I don't have to go to work any longer, says the grandfather. Then am I retired? asks the boy. And so on. He says that when he grows up he wants to be an orphan. Cute little jokes, but with a feeling of déjâ vu.

Other scenes are harder to remember. They're Marty-like moments where the boys stand around out in a courtyard wondering what to do, exchanging grave, long-delayed comments about each other, their families, the limited possibilities for amusement. Vacation ends and the first day of school comes.

"One day after another, it seems as if life never ends," one boy comments as they sit outside on abandoned furniture in a light snow. Another friend imagines himself hitching up with his "stupid and average-looking" girlfriend to produce others like himself who will do the same. "It's the endless fruit of my loins," he sums up. Another boy thinks that their "muddling along" in school leads to a "mentality" that will not contribute to the future of socialism. Their learning is by rote, and so is their politics.

This may be a commentary on the new China. It is certainly a commentary on life in the provinces. These boys are beyond the stimulus of true urban life. They are dullards, but it's the world they live in. The director's minimalist style asks us also whether life should make us laugh or cry. He seems to lean toward laughter (as Roy Andersson also does), but there's sadness and much boredom along the way.

Hongqi Li's filmmaking has been called "mesmerizing," "scorchingly funny" and "corrosively subversive." I did not see anyone scorched from the funny in my audience, or corroded by subversion. As for mesmerizing, yes. The man next to me fell asleep for some time. Then he left, saying this director has a stunning visual sense. That's true. There was something about the arrangement of figures and objects in the long horizontal frames that was striking and original. Sometimes the color or the light verge, ironically, on the sublime. Of course Hongqi Li has something. Has not Locarno said so? There is another kind of mesmerizing: the kind that comes from watching objects move very slowly in front of one's eyes. It's a kind of hypnosis, and you can do it to a chicken. But this kind of film is a tough watch. It's not the way I want to spend a lot of my time, even though I know that's just the very kind of thing that was said when Beckett's Waiting for Godot first appeared.

When I first saw You the Living (slow, but not as tough a watch) I expressed admiration, but also wrote that Andersson's sequences sometimes seemed like "the work of a Saturday Night Live writer in need of Prozac." I commented that "Since some scenes plainly move you or draw a laugh, it's obvious that others fall a little flat." One can offer the same criticism of Hongqi Li. Roy Andersson is not for everyone but he has gained an admiring audience of fans. Li may not ever gain that wide an audience. But his success reflects the increasing focus on Asian cinema in the world. And his long shots and unmoving camera positions are a very Asian way to shoot a film.

Hongqi Li's Winter Vacation was seen and reviewed as part of the New Directors/New Films, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA March 23-April 3, 2011.

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