If the early films of Jia Zhang-ke employed a rigorous fixed-take aesthetic to pin his dead-end kids to their rural northern Chinese surroundings, then, in Winter Vacation, director Li Hongqi channels instead the absurdist formalism of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson to depict a similar cast of characters stuck in an identical provincial setting. While Andersson builds his comic miserablism directly into his mise-en-scène, a succession of formalist recessionals in which his hapless characters remain trapped, Li, just as concerned with the exact placement of figures in the frame, strips down the Swede’s deadpan minimalism to the point where there’s barely anything left.
Filming a half dozen (fictional) school-age kids, two toddlers, and a smattering of adults during the last days of a winter vacation in a collapsing rural town, Li not only positions each figure in stylized poses (mostly mirroring the way kids stand—slouched, hands in pockets), but distills conversation into an endless series of pauses and dry recitations. Among other things, in Li’s hands, duration becomes a comedic tool, the director milking the simple length of time it takes characters to do nothing for aching laughter. But also, as in a late shot where a group of kids get up one by one from a makeshift outdoor lounge, leaving the beat-up furniture to sit vacated in the snow, time’s passing renders life’s banality piercingly sad.
Basically, in Li’s world, existence is a series of absurdist situations, a state of being reinforced by the endless repetition of events. One boy gets continually mugged by a bully, the familiarity of the act having been codified into a sort of comic ritual between the two. A much younger kid annoys his grandfather with his perpetual questioning only to be warned off with the same refrain concerning an impending “kick in the butt.” Another young man tries to convince his girlfriend not to dump him (shot amid decaying architecture, the scene recalls a similar exchange in Jia’s Platform). Later we learn that the couple’s life is defined by a cycle of breakups and restarts and the boy’s friends expect the pair to marry.
Mostly Li’s kids appear vaguely aware of the uselessness of their lives. “One day after another, it seems life never ends,” says one philosophically inclined boy, pithily summarizing the film’s absurdist viewpoint, though sometimes the film goes too far in making explicit what it wants to say. In the final sequence, an absent-minded teacher chucks his lesson plan to instruct his class on the arrogance and stupidity of mankind. Though the unrelieved moral harangue is finally broken up by a comic twist, Li’s point is all too bluntly made. Still, in the decaying northern provinces of China (whose tenements and trash-strewn courtyards DP Qin Yurui captures in beautifully lit digital decrepitude), adopting a comic absurdist viewpoint seems at least as productive as taking a tragic one. When, mid-film, one kid turns to his friends and asks them what are they going to do today, it’s at once a practical question, an existential inquiry, and a rhetorical declaration of cosmic futility.