China (2017) Dir. Song Chuan
“Home is where the heart is” according to the old adage, which for young people living in countries under strict rule, might be anywhere else but home. This can’t be helped but what if they live in a society where family is considered paramount, an uncomfortable divide between generations is bound to arise.
The titular Ciao Ciao (Xueqin Liang) arrives back in her rural hometown in the Yunnan province, having been away and enjoying prosperity in Guangzhou (aka Canton), turning heads from the moment she steps from the car with her high fashion outfits. Among those intrigued by this prodigal return is bad boy Li Wei (Zhang Yu), himself having left Yunnan only to return under a cloud of ignominy.
Also, keen to impress Ciao Ciao is the local hairdresser (Zhou Quan), another young chap with experience of city life with plans to open a salon there. Because of the money he makes from gambling and the bootleg business run by his father (Hong Chang), Ciao Ciao hooks up with Li Wei, but it is not exactly an easy relationship that follows.
Song Chuan is the latest Chinese director to highlight the sense of hopelessness and frustrations of his country’s disaffected youth under the stifling Communist rule, but unlike many of his contemporaries, Song remains politically calm in his narrative. This means the swift 79-minute journey of our eponymous protagonist is a passive affair with little mordant bite, making one wonder if Song is upset about anything.
Not to downplay the occasional grittiness of the film, manifest through short, decidedly rough, and one-sided sex scenes, but for the most part the film drifts by like a gentle breeze. The first thing that strikes us is the vivid colour pallet, atypical of the usual depiction of rustic China. Instead of muted tones and a dry and dusty veneer, the greens are vibrant, the blues shimmering, and the reds arresting.
It’s an interesting visual motif yet it doesn’t distract from the gist of the arguably flimsy story, and certainly helps reinforce the dichotomy of Ciao Ciao’s cosmopolitan wardrobe against the staid attire of the village denizens. Ciao Ciao stands out in every shot as if the background was in black and white even if her outfit is simple like a blue top and denim shorts, the chic level is unmistakable.
But with this come a sour attitude, that Ciao Ciao is better than her old life and those still living it, namely her hardworking mother (Zhou Lin) and idler father (Wang Laowu), and there is no intention of disguising this. But we don’t know what Ciao Ciao did in the city or why she was forced to return home, though the odd phone call to a friend still in Guangzhou suggests a plan is place to rectify this.
Li Wei doesn’t share Ciao Ciao’s snobbish attitude but his arrogance is palpable, carrying himself like a big shot when he is anything but. He claims an act of violence against another man forced his return to the home fold to hide out, but he is a regular target of the local police for his gambling and the bootlegging. For all his bravado, he is still under the thumb of his father, like a naughty teen.
The sex scenes all involve Li Wei and he is a selfish lover, rough and thoughtless that even a prostitute complains he hurt her. With Ciao Ciao, he is no less forgiving but each time becomes a chore for her that in the end she grips the bedpost and grimaces until it is over. It’s rare for such scenes to feel congruent to the plot but this is one of those rare cases, deftly relaying the crumbling relationship without the traditional histrionics of domestic rows.
Meanwhile, Ciao Ciao’s overworked mother somehow finds the time to have an affair with Li Wei’s father which will prove awkward when the two families become one (since Li Wei brazenly didn’t wear a condom during his first time in bed with Ciao Ciao). It’s a small community so what do you expect, certainly too small for Ciao Ciao, feeling judged for smoking expensive cigarettes and unimpressed by the range of clothes on offer.
Over time the pressure builds and both Ciao Ciao and Li Wei are ready to explode for different reasons, but true to the languid pace and idyllic presentation of Yunnan, Song doesn’t make a particularly engaging case for either to be as dissatisfied as they are. Granted, the opportunities they one tasted in the city were sweet enough to want more but as characters they aren’t given much more to do than brood and sulk (and smoke and shag).
Some may appreciate this simmering internal rage as a welcome respite from the usual fraught melodrama, which it is, but such emotional explosions at least help the audience understand the characters and their feelings. Song giving us half the story makes both leads hard to read and difficult to relate to in their plight and frankly, makes it harder to care, leaving us with two spoiled brats to watch mope about.
Xueqin Liang and Zhang Yu clearly have a better understanding of the hidden depths of their respective roles than we do, the latter making Li Wei somewhat interesting with his misplaced swagger. Ciao Ciao is aesthetically pleasing and sufficiently petulant but needs just a bit more spark to her otherwise one-dimensional presence, yet the film’s closing scene admittedly would work as well without the subtlety of the preceding friction.
It may not have been Song’s intention but what we take away from Ciao Ciao is how picturesque and inviting Yunnan looks, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography bringing it to life with such verve. As a social drama, this is a story that has been told before but with more ferocity and conviction though Song’s laid-back approach is not entirely unpleasant to watch and will have some fans appreciating its anodyne dissent.