‘Xiao Shan Going Home’ (Xiao Shan Hui Jia)
‘Xiao Shan Going Home’ was made by Zhangke whilst studying at the Beijing Film Academy in 1995 and was screened at the 1997 Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Awards winning the Grand Prix. The film is 59 minutes long and follows Xiao Wu (Wang Hongwei),a migrant working as a chef in Beijing who tries everything he can to get to his home town in time for the New Year.
The film may seem unusual in its format and narrative style to Western audiences or those unfamiliar with Zhangke’s work, however certain techniques and artistic choices actually contribute to the mood Zhangke is trying to evoke. The footage shot is rather grainy and low grade, but as his first short film made in a time without HD, this actually contributes to the film’s aesthetic and grunge-like atmosphere of the streets Wu inhabits.
What is also interesting is the use of intertitles during the film which list Wu’s career goals and social issues present at the time. All actors give adequate performances and despite the limitations due to budget and being Zhangke’s film debut, there is an insight into the daily lives of Chinese immigrants and busy lifestyle in the bustling and grimy city.
‘The Canine Condition’ (Gou de Zhuangkuang)
Zhangke’s 6 minute short film ‘The Canine Condition’ is a pun on the 1933 realist novel ‘La Condition Humaine’ by Andre Malraux. The story portrayed the Communist uprising of 1927 in Shanghai and it’s failure due to betrayal amongst comrades and civilians.
Zhangke’s film however instead portrays a group of puppies who have been trapped into a sack by market people supposedly to be sold. As the puppies struggle and whine to make their escape one puppy manages to bite his way out of the sack revealing his head coupled with a helpless expression. Perhaps an extreme 6 minutes for any dog lover, the film is maybe metaphorical for the chaos and confusion of the historic Communist uprising.
‘Cry Me a River’
‘Cry Me a River’ is a romantic short film based around the reunion of four university friends and lovers after 10 years. Jia states that this film was inspired by the classic Chinese film ‘Spring in a Small Town’, which is also about the reuniting of lovers.
The friends, who were all former campus poets with their own published campus magazine “This Generation”, meet to congratulate the birthday of their professor. Ma and Zhou are a former couple, Zhou is married now, whilst Ma is still single. Zhou expresses her concern for Ma and reveals her still present love. Tang and Bai meanwhile apparently had a close relationship, however Bai had an unhappy marriage because of her husband’s affair. On the other hand, the successful career of Tang’s wife caused dull marital relations.
The film gives the audience a steady and gratifying feeling, it is a story about an endless and physically absent relationship. It also reflects the marriage of social reality. Although people in life will encounter many unpleasant things, there will always be other people or things to balance that sadness. There are no exaggerated plots or techniques used in the film.
It brings out the message “life is a canoe, drifting in the river of time”, which can make us comprehend and think about the relationships between people. Scenes are shot in a plain way to describe the story and the shots accompany lyrical interlude and simple dialogue. When all of these things coordinate together, they express affection.
‘In Public’ is a short documentary film about a city called Datong. Many Shanxi people state that Datong is a horrible and disorderedly place, therefore attracting Jia to explore it personally. This is a film without subtitles, an interesting choice made by the director as he thinks the audience do not need to hear what the characters are saying.
Their voices are part of the environment and people’s faces and status are more important than what they are saying. It is thus quite an abstract film as it abandons all languages and simply focuses on characters’ appearance.
The film presents different shots of many spaces such as railway stations, a bus stop, waiting rooms, dance halls, billiard halls and a restaurant. There is a rhythm and order throughout these spaces that are all connected in a journey of sorts, this is one of the director’s personal artistic choices.
Another interesting idea is overlap space. For example, there is a bus station waiting room in the documentary. The ticket lobby is a billiard hall and there is a ballroom behind the curtain, they become three locations and assume the functions. Jia argues that he likes picture superimposed in modern art and that spatial overlap demonstrates a deep and complex social reality. This is an esoteric and abstract concept and adding this element can enhance the sense of arts of the documentary.
This documentary makes us recognize Datong more plainly and lets us know that when we exhume something deeply and personally, we can inhabit many stereotypes.
As reiterated, the films may be appreciated more by those familiar with Zhangke’s work and the culture behind it, however the director himself acknowledged this idea, stating that not everyone from different backgrounds understand his work.
In presence at the Chinese Visual Festival in London, Zhangke also stated it is not necessary to have local experience to decipher these stories, but rather life experience as these emotional trials and tribulations are universal. Zhangke believes we should appreciate film and not limit ourselves to certain experiences; therefore anyone curious should sample his films and see if they can spot the window into another culture.
Reviews by Husna Anjum and Keynes Ling
Photography by Andreea Dascalu