Jian Ming (Qiu Hong), the melancholy antihero of Zhao Dayong’s The High Life, sets up shop in the crowded urban village of Guangzhou scamming unemployed folk into paying him for help finding work. After collecting the money, all Jian Ming does is glue the photographs of the scam victims on one of his apartment’s walls, turning it into an ever-growing mosaic of hopeless faces. Sometimes he reads off the victims’ profiles to his lover in bed, for laughs.
The suffocating bleakness of the city and the cruelty-by-necessity of Jian Ming’s shady activities recalls Central Station. In the Walter Salles film, Fernanda Montenegro’s Dora also took advantage of the vulnerability of others, getting paid to write letters for their loved ones without ever mailing them. Like Dora, Jian Ming finds himself drawn to a telling exception: the unforeseen passerby who jolts the scam artist into benevolent action. In Central Station, the lucky one was an orphan boy in search for his father in the backlands of northeastern Brazil. In The High Life, it’s an 18-year-old girl recently arrived from the countryside, for whom Jian Ming decides to actually find work. The girl takes a job at a shady salon, where Jian Ming spends time hanging out with her, but mostly observing her. When her boss rapes her in the backroom, he sits motionless along with other salon employees, smoking a cigarette, eating peanuts.
The High Life paints a portrait, sometimes tainted by art-house film affectations, of an urban hell in which men are despicable when powerful and depressingly impotent when not. Women are miserable at home, taken for prostitutes in the work place, and only able to show affection when their men are passed out drunk on the living-room mattress. The ones who dare to aspire to some kind of mobility beg men to take them out of “here,” their pleas met with cigarette-smoking silence. No one is going anywhere. The film clearly places the imperative to make money as the central mediator of the human experience: the abuse of the few men who get it, the hopelessness of those who don’t, and the women’s delicate position of either settling for misery or satiating material greed through male proxies.
As in Central Station, lipstick appears as the fantasy object for female deliverance. In Salles’s film, Dora borrows lipstick from a stranger in a public restroom after meeting a trucker who may or may not have looked at her with desiring eyes. This leads to one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which she gently puts on the lipstick with the kind of pre-bliss certainty that is bound to turn into no bliss at all. In The High Life, a female inmate (the few who attempt to get out of “here” tend to get imprisoned) flirts with a police guard who forces prisoners into reading his self-penned poetry (“My essence flows from my pen into the womb of the whore”) so she can get cigarettes. One day she asks him for lipstick because it’s her birthday. This leads us into this film’s most beautiful scene, and most representative of women’s predicament, in which the inmate asks the officer on the other side of the bars to put the lipstick on her lips. The ecstasy glimmering off of her face as she is touched through the bars that imprison her seals the deal.