Perfect Life is a panoply of perfect, perfectly repulsive moments. The film saves one of its best for late: a crowd of Chinese women gather outside a carnival. An English-language song comprised of prepubescent male whistlers and an upbeat synthesizer plays. The women gather in rows, clapping their hands, dancing as if they were in an aerobics class, flesh sagging and bouncing. At the end, one middle-aged woman looks around, proud, smiling, happy, as people stare at her. For an instant—in her mind, at least—she’s a star. Then the sound mutes, and the screen cuts to black. The movie’s prepared us for this moment with many scenes of fantasy and escape. In the first scene a younger woman, perhaps the older woman’s daughter, perhaps her double—shows up to an audition. She plays “Auld Lang Syne” on a harmonica, badly. An auditioner asks, “What strange melody is that?”
Roland Barthes once called Japan an empire of signs; if nothing else, Perfect Life suggests that China’s one too. Like the typical notion of Depression-era American audiences looking to Fred and Ginger to make their dreams come true (a notion partly debunked, but also partly upheld, in Morris Dickstein’s brilliant recent book Dancing in the Dark), the movie presents its two drab, stifled women leading drab, empty lives that they can only escape by looking at screens. The girl that calls from payphones asking for part-time jobs comes into a photo shop for a birthday picture; she doesn’t like the backdrop of verdant mountains, nor the one of fruit and champagne, but she’ll gladly pose in front of the shot of Manhattan (though it might be Hong Kong, dressing up). One of the few times she smiles in the movie comes when she’s sitting in a cramped, dusty cinema, watching In the Mood for Love—a film whose main lovers keep pretending they’re other people.
Director Emily Tang shoots her second movie from still frontal angles, in clean, lucid DV. The effect throughout aims for an antiseptic register, save for more shadowy moments, where the movie grows black or bleary, chlorined blue. The film alternates scenes between the two women, as the younger involves herself with a shady, crutch-clutching art dealer and the older looks for a job herself while fighting off an ex-husband who wants to return. The Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke, perhaps one of the 10 or so best directors working, served as an executive producer on the film, and it’s not hard to tell. Like in Platform, characters perform menial jobs and dream of becoming entertainers; like in The World, the entertainments they perform (karaoke, chintzy vaudeville) prove garish and mediocre; and like in 24 City, eventually the audience comes to wonder whether the characters exist just to entertain them. 24 City switches between interviews with real live factory workers and their words turned into monologues performed by actresses like Joan Chen. The line between fantasy and reality blurs in a hurry. Are we watching a documentary, or does the very act of filming someone—whether or not they’re speaking their own words—turn them into fiction? Does it matter?
I ask these questions because I recently learned from Cinema Scope that, like Jia, Tang’s playing with levels of performance. The younger woman’s story is scripted fiction, while the older woman’s is documentary. Like Jia, Tang reflects this in the two women’s differing performance styles; the young woman presents herself generally stiff and controlled, the old one hair messy, raising her voice or crying. Yet a key difference comes from how much access the directors allow the characters to have to the viewer. Jia allows all his interviewees the ability to directly address the camera while speaking; I nearly inserted “both factory workers and actresses playing them” into the prior phrase, but Jia might argue that the two are the same thing. (Think of Erving Goffman, the sociologist whose The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life presents life as a theatrical performance, with its actors striving to give as convincing a performance as possible of whatever role they are playing at the moment.) By contrast, Tang only allows the older woman to talk to the viewer, keeping the younger within a (seemingly) unbroken fiction.
If anything, though, the fiction is too clean. I adore Jia for his shots of still, stillborn lives, but often get lost trying to follow his movies’ plots; Tang seems to have a more intuitive grasp of how to tell a forward-moving narrative, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing (if we valued directors only for their ability to build digestible narratives, Robert Z. Leonard would be considered better than Josef Von Sternberg). The sleazeball she dates walks with one of his lower legs missing, and the use of physical deformity to suggest spiritual deformity is a crutch in itself. The plotline about the gangsters he owes money to feels recycled. Once he leaves the movie, the adultery plot that replaces him proves little better.
Yet while Perfect Life’s genre associations are dissatisfying, I wonder whether their trite, hackneyed nature is, in fact, the point. On one level, the older woman’s direct address serves dramatic expedience (like with soliloquies in plays, the isolated character tells the audience what she’s thinking because she doesn’t have anyone else to tell), but it also adds a layer of meaning to the movie. The fictional character, like Goffman’s actors, plays a part; the real woman would like to but doesn’t have anyone to play with, unless we help. Tang digs into us by frequently filming scenes in front of mirrors, presenting the reflections of characters rather than the people themselves; at some point we must accept that we’re dealing with images of people, and that people turn themselves into images on a regular basis.
By Perfect Life’s end, the dividing lines have been all messed up. The movie’s last shot, a freeze-frame, shows the younger woman posing in front of her old wedding photo, and the movie’s facile title proves apt. The character, expressing what we grant to be real needs and wants within the context of fiction, has moved from fantasizing a dream of mighty Manhattan to framing and fictionalizing her own real, imagined life.
Perfect Life played on February 20 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series.