By Andrew Chan
[Zhang Yang's Luo Ye Gui Gen (Getting Home) screens on Thursday, January 15th and Saturday, January 24th as part of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) series "Global Lens 2009." Click here for more information.]
Is it possible for a mainland Chinese filmmaker to possess an unabashedly popular sensibility while also examining the many social and political pressure points that have, for so long, been off-limits in the nation's commercial entertainment? Where other contemporary directors like Jia Zhang-ke, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Lou Ye have positioned their careers in the context of international art cinema, Zhang Yang—who lies within the same late-thirties, early-forties age group as these acclaimed auteurs—has never fit in with the trendy grit and edginess of what a 2001 Lincoln Center program dubbed the "Urban Generation." Nor has he taken after his most famous predecessors, exhibiting neither the obsession with historical pageantry of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Feng Xiaogang, nor the subdued craftsmanship of Tian Zhuangzhuang's recent work. From the beginning, Zhang Yang seemed comfortable in his own niche: unlike his peers, he has become a pioneer in obliquely addressing painful national themes in a manner palatable to the widest possible Chinese audience and, most significantly, to the censorship-happy government.
Making his debut in 1997 with Spicy Love Soup, a collection of vignettes that became one of the most financially successful Chinese independent films ever, Zhang has maintained the posture of a shameless sentimentalist, a kind of Chinese Capra devoted to reinforcing good ol' family values and an all-you-need-is-love ethic. Every one of his subsequent films has been a variation on the family-separation trope that constitutes a recurring strand throughout Chinese-language melodrama (known as lunli qinqing pian, or "ethical family-affection films"), a framework that often conceives of home as the battleground for tradition and modernity. International audiences are most likely to know Zhang as the director of Shower, a crowd-pleaser at the Toronto Film Festival that became a minor indie hit in the U.S. That film, though, is by far his weakest, a mess of undercooked melodrama and unfunny comedy that manages to sustain interest only through its portrait of the vanishing culture of Beijing bathhouses and the city's relentless urban development.
Shower is the first entry in a string of three consecutive films in which Zhang mines the generational disconnect between old-fashioned fathers and their new-world sons. It was followed by 2001's Quitting, which bears the influence of Brecht and the look of the Chinese hard-rock aesthetic, with the once-famous actor Jia Hongsheng and his family reenacting the story of his drug addiction for a play Zhang is staging. No other film in the director's oeuvre plunges as deeply into paternal humiliation and parental helplessness, or identifies as thoroughly with the pained bewilderment of the older generation—and it's a welcome stance in light of his peers' almost exclusive sympathies for disaffected youth. But given its meta-theatrical premise, the film also seems intellectually shallow in what it attempts to reveal about the creative process and the intersection of theater, cinema, and reality.
In 2005, Zhang concluded his unofficial father-son trilogy with an autobiographical take on the subject, chronicling the three-decade aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Sunflower is as schmaltzy as its title suggests, but in its revisiting of his first two films' soap-opera tactics and feel-good resolutions, it reveals an honest emotional sensibility. Where Zhang's earlier work tended to elide and even trivialize China's social turmoil in the hope of appealing to a broader audience, Sunflower shows how Zhang's gift for dramatizing family dynamics can partially substitute for a muted political consciousness. The strength of the film and the promise it represents in the context of Zhang's art lie in how powerfully it evokes national struggle through the constraints of Chinese cinema's populist voice. After the modernist-lite of Quitting, it is even more apparent that Zhang—so easily disregarded for his lack of adventurousness—seems most authentically himself when engaging with popular Chinese forms.
Five films into his career, Zhang has emerged as a modern incarnation of the recently deceased Xie Jin, a key master of mainstream, generally non-subversive melodramas that have long been out of fashion, and unable to satisfy art-house and film-festival culture's prejudice for formal innovation and political candor. Zhang embodies a balance between the Xie model and the contemporary one; if he rarely strays from stylistic convention, he also seems to have discovered that in order to examine the old theme of "family affection," it is impossible for him to ignore the societal changes that have so radically transformed the Chinese conception of home and family.
Zhang's latest film, Getting Home (the original title, Luo ye gui gen, is a common Chinese expression meaning "Falling leaves return to their roots"), explores the same thematic concerns, and also reaches back to deliver on a formula that was clumsily executed in Shower: melodrama with a strong dose of broad comedy. A vehicle for the wildly popular sitcom star Zhao Benshan, it begins with a death, then morphs into a road movie that places the many forms of poverty in rural China on display. Despite being based on a true story, the film operates as pure fable. Zhang has certainly never been slavish to realism, but he achieves something here that he has never pulled off before, and that is rarely attempted in current art cinema: a portrait of a saint-like figure that throws out all self-righteousness, and compensates for the character's lack of dynamism with a sense of charm, magic, and good humor.
Think of the art of Chaplin and Keaton, adapted to the purposes of Zhang's increasingly forthright social commentary. The film follows Zhao's character on his journey from Shenzhen to Chongqing as he tries against all odds to return a friend's dead body to his long-estranged family. The sight of this middle-aged man transporting a corpse mostly on foot, and sometimes by bus or truck, is heartwarming grotesquerie: a show of extreme loyalty that the well-off are never called upon to prove. Exchanging the undistinguished cinematography of Jong Lin for the masterfully aestheticized digital work of Yu Lik-wai, Getting Home marks a convergence of different film languages: the commonplace with the surreal, the art film with the mainstream, the comedic with the elegiac. On the one hand, the film could be the postmortem flipside of Wendy and Lucy, a detailed account of various kindnesses and cruelties that present themselves at the margins of society, and an interrogation of how basic human dignity can be achieved when it lies outside a person's financial capacity. But in tone and style, the film often feels like a throwback to silent comedy, with Zhao appearing as a lonely figure victimized by a chaotic landscape, triumphing through sheer physical ingenuity.
Zhang's intermittent choreography of slapstick gags, recurring dangers, and last-minute saves highlights his ultimately patriotic vision of Chinese resilience. After a decade-long onslaught of contemporary films about the nation's unjust bureaucracy (such as Zhang Yimou's great tragicomedy The Story of Qiu Ju), it is surprising that Zhao, upon reaching the story's tear-jerking conclusion, meets with a police officer's compassion instead of the expected institutional indifference. Love of country and devotion to family are what continue to mark this director as traditional and conservative, even though they are the same qualities that create a space for social awareness that reaches out to include the general Chinese viewer as much as the international art-film circuit. The small miracle that Zhang weaves throughout his episodic narrative is an unbending commitment to affirming life, a position he never allows to gloss over the depictions of widespread despair and corruption. If the great films from mainland China over the past two decades have mainly been pitched between sorrow and rage, Zhang's increasingly skillful work has offered some of the few shots of unadulterated optimism. Getting Home may communicate primarily through best-case scenarios rather than convincing situations, and its ideas may be more idealistic than they are believable, but it succeeds as a poignant reminder that dejection is not the only emotion felt in a life below the poverty line.
Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at New York University (NYU). He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.