Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 16, 2022 9:37 am 
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Tumultuous three chapter filmmaking sort-of documentary evokes Jia Zhang-ke and other role models

Wei Shujun, the young director of the semi-autobiographical (and wholly indulgent) Striding into the Wind shown in Competition at the abortive 2020 Cannes Festival, depicted himself as a dissolute, slightly jokey sound man driving a beat-up jeep Cherokee. But he has been a Cannes protégé since his short film On the Border 延边少年, was awarded Special Jury Distinction in 2018. This time he reveals the extent of his ambition (and his enthusiasm for cinema) in this ironic, but rich and beautiful mocumentary about the cast and crew of a pretentious indie film about to be made in rural China about "authentic" people.

The film is divided into three interlocking chapters. The first one, entitled Waiting Alone, in particular is gorgeous (thanks a lot to dp Wang Jiehong), and at points evokes Jia Zhang-ke's exciting early work. Every shot is complicated and fascinating and fun, full of people and junk. The color is like you've never quite seen before and a delight to the eye. The plot again is very meandering but focuses on certain crew members and on a squabbling local couple, the vibrant, pretty young wife, Xiao Gu (Huang Miyi), with a year-old baby, also running her in-law's little restaurant which now finds itself catering for the film crew. She and her husband argue about whether she should breast feed; the husband quotes edicts from his mother to countermand his wife's wishes. Meanwhile the crew members turn their cameras on her and like what they find.

Wei Shujun's previous feature seemed so meandering, disorganized and indulgent I didn't review it. Derek Elley's description of it in his Sino Cinema review (after one of his typically meticulous summaries) was "a pointless two hours spent in the company of uninteresting people," and that did not seem too wide of the mark. But something about the detail of scenes, and the lack of self-centeredness about this, second feature by most counts, fourth by Elley's more inclusive reckoning, makes one feel forced to take notice. But it's still not easy to describe or to do justice to all the often chaotic details.

The film overall concerns a big female star who after 20 years away brings a film crew to her remote hometown for a shoot. The Chinese title means "Yong'an Town Story Collection" and the film was shot at Zixing City, Hunan Province. The production is afflicted by disagreements among crew members while as mentioned, Xiao Gu, the bored local restaurant operator, is excited at the prospect of becoming a stand-in for the star and the star suffers from being too famous.

The first chapter belongs to Gu; the second one, called It Looks Beautiful, begins with the arrival of the film’s leading lady Chen Chen (Yang Zishan). Chen Chen's desire to return to the simpler life of her youth is deceived by her realization that now that she's a star, of course nobody treats her as a normal person in Yong'an Town any more and they celebrate her in endless cumbrous ways she must smile and endure while old friends and acquaintances turn away from her, try to gain favors from her, or are sadly changed. This is a combined study of the disenchantments of "success" and the disillusionment of a simpler past that's forever lost. It's a chapter rich in colorful celebratory scenes, fireworks and costumed dragons and crowded reception parties, chaotic material still sometimes suggestive of Jia Zhang-ke.

The third chapter, perhaps more in a Hong Sang-soo mode, focuses on the director (Liu Yang) and the screenwriter (actual film screenwriter Kang Chunlei), who argue over the philosophy behind the film and what it should feel like. This chapter is entitled Pluto Moment, referring (I gather) to the 2018 Zhang Ming film about a film crew who get lost in the mountains and never complete their film. This title signifies a creative impasse experienced by the script writer and the artistic differences between him and the film director. The scriptwriter is a melancholic romantic and a fan of classic rock; the director is a sanguine pragmatic ex rapper (a Wei standin?). They appear incompatible and it doesn't look like the script is going to be completed. And it will never be authentic even if it is, because the crew realize it ought to be made in Hunan dialect, which they can't do.

Screen Daily compliments Wei for "Swiftly delivering on the promise of his freewheeling, semi-autobiographical debut feature" and calls the film " a dexterous rumination on the pursuit of authenticity." The reviewer, John Berra, suggests Wei this time "courts comparison with the meta-comedies of Hong Sang-soo" because the film's local ingenue is complimented for resembling Hong's muse Kim Min-hee - whom she has never heard of, of course. Hong may come to mind in the third chapter, while obviously the first evokes Jia, and the second could bring to mind numerous directors, including French ones. The busy, crammed early segment is nothing like Hong's minimalist dramas, but early Jia Zhang-ke can't help but seem real influence and not an unsuccessful one.

Ripples of Life is inconclusive, by intent, but begins to live up to Wei's extravagance and promise. This is one to savor and rewatch.

Ripples of Life 永安镇故事集 ("A collection of stories from Yongan Town"), 123 mins., in Mandarin and Hunan dialect with English subtitles, premiered at Pingyao in Oct. 2021, and also debuted at Cannes 2022 in Directors' Fortnight, showing later at London, Busan, and Brussels and other international festivals. It was screened for this review as part of the July 15-30, 2022 New York Asian Film Festival.

Monday, July 18
6:00 PM AT THE Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center

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