Incessant rainfall, Hong Kong pop and vacant landscapes: Cinema from in and around China

By Katie Fowley

In recent years, the cinema coming out of China and its contested territories began receiving due attention from abroad. The works of three filmmakers from this area — Jia Zhang Ke (mainland China), Tsai Ming-Liang (Taiwan), and Wong Kar Wai (Hong Kong) — are particularly notable. While common threads can certainly be found in these directors’ works, with themes similarly touching on alienation, the clash of tradition and modernity and the surly, disaffected male lead, this regional grouping serves a primarily categorical function. Despite the Chinese government’s “One China” policy, film from this region does not reveal a unified vision spanning mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Instead, we find a vast array of styles, aesthetics and aims, promoting distinct and promising artists.

The Hole (1998) by Tsai Ming-Liang

Tsai Ming-Liang, a Malaysia-born filmmaker who moved to Taiwan at age 20, depicts apartment buildings filling with water, Hong Kong pop music from the 60s and an apocalyptic world ridden with strange diseases and desolate cityscapes in The Hole.

You don’t really need to understand what’s being said in this movie; it features as much diagetic sound (incessant rainfall, crinkling plastic, industrial hum) as it does actual speech. From radio reports we learn that a strange disease that makes humans act like cockroaches is sweeping across Taiwan, causing massive evacuations. Two individuals are left behind in a vacated apartment building, with a hole connecting their two apartments. The stark, desolate scenes in the apartment building are interrupted by brief, showy musical interludes, inspired by the music of 60s Hong Kong pop singer Grace Chang. The physical hole creates a comic and contentious dynamic between the two main characters: the man peers through the hole at the woman and she retaliates with bug spray. However, the film deals with the figurative hole, as well: alone in the apartment, the two characters are unable to communicate with one another. Tsai Ming-Liang’s nihilistic film about alienated people in an apocalyptic world succeeds by probing into issues surrounding the modernization of Taiwan while maintaining a sense of humor and using a playful narrative structure to continually surprise and entertain the viewer.

Days of Being Wild (1991) by Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai has mainstream success with films such as In the Mood for Love and 2046, which offer postmodern pastiches into a muted and beautiful universe. Though Days of Being Wild was a commercial failure at the time of its release, this film laid much of the groundwork for what have become trademarks of Wong Kar Wai’s work. It is the first movie in which he ventures back to the Hong Kong of the 60s, complete with tantalizing, haunting Hawaiian guitar music from the era. In Days of Being Wild, a smooth-talking lady-charmer, Yuddy, moves from woman to woman, forsaking them with seemingly little remorse. He takes a train through the jungles into the Phillipines to search for his wealthy mother who abandoned him as a child. There, he becomes entangled with gang members, and the film comes to a violent end. Days of Being Wild blends a gangster genre film with something more subtle and artful. It hovers around such themes as temporality and the impossibility of achieving love, themes that Wong Kar Wai continually returns to.

Unknown Pleasures (2002) by Jia Zhang Ke

Jia Zhang Ke is part of what is known as the “sixth generation” in Chinese cinema, a generation that uses film to express social criticisms and to address controversial subjects such as sexuality, corruption, unemployment and prostitution at the risk of government censorship. His underground film, Unknown Pleasures, was banned in China, and Jia Zhang Ke was forced to find funding for the film from external sources. Unlike Wong Kar Wai, who creates intentionally lush, artistic films, Jia Zhang Ke creates a feel of gritty realism in films such as Unknown Pleasures, which depicts unglamorized youth in vacant post-industrial landscapes. In Cassavetes-esque fashion, Jia Zhang Ke uses improvisational techniques with untrained actors, and is adept at holding the camera still and letting the scene speak for itself. Unknown Pleasures portrays two unemployed teenagers wandering through bleak, deteriorating landscapes, and thoughtlessly consuming Western culture. The movie ends with a failed bank-robbery attempt, and with one of the teenagers boldly singing his favorite pop song before armed guards in an act of futile resistance.

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