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reviews for qiu jiongjiong documentary films  

2011-08-25 06:55:17|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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The Amusement of the Floating Life, Where in Does the Amusement Lie?

Qiu Jiongjiong Documentary Film Impressions

 

Text / Wang Xiaolu

 The first film of Qiu Jiongjiong that I watched was Madame (2009-2010, 120 minutes). We were programming for a film festival and were moving through the films hurriedly. But his film in particular caught the interest of the festival programmers and a heated discussion over its merits ensued. The main protagonist is a homosexual singer, rather large in build and very effeminate. Through a bold and unrestrained account of his personal experiences, we see a life "burst into bloom" in front of the camera—the "flowering" of which is excessively amorous, gaudy, even slightly engorged. His ability to infect his audience is not only a result of his entertaining anecdotes but the expression of an empowering view of life—a will to live that beckons his audience on the deepest levels.

 

It would not suffice to say that the success Madame relies entirely on the discovery of such an A-class character. As a film, it also possesses a higher degree of "completeness." It has a way of condensing the atmosphere. I remember the space of the film being strictly confined—the body of its protagonist serving as the camera's only frame of reference. Seldom does the frame open up and when it does, the camera moves like a tree branch in the wind, or there is a glimpse of snow—all of it tightly controlled. In every detail, I felt the director's control of his cinematic form.

 

Later, I watched his other films, including The Moon Palace (2006-2007, 104 minutes), Ode to Joy, Portrait of Mr. Huang, and My Mother's Rhapsody (2011, 106 minutes). I could sense that the filmmaker is a person of "play". Especially so in his early works, "playful" decisions outnumber social decisions—his commitment to "play" greater than his social demands. This approach is entirely different from the mainstream of independent Chinese documentaries that emerged in the ’90s. Perhaps this has something to do with him being from a well-known Sichuan opera family—his sensitivity towards form—or perhaps it has to do with the artistic training he received from a young age.

 

In the opening scenes of My Mother's Rhapsody, a rooster’s head appears. The rooster appears lively, although it bears no connection to the main story. The main story is of the filmmaker's paternal grandmother, who is vexed over finding a new suitable dwelling after the demolition of her house. Throughout the film she rambles on about her epic life journey—the close-up of the rooster interjecting throughout, again and again. What exactly is the meaning of this? Naturally, I made an associative connection with Eisenstein's film Strike which utilized the image of a peacock. Eisenstein's peacock is a well-known representative of his vaudevillian montage editing technique. Its appearance in the film is disconnected with the film's narrative. Instead, the director uses it to emphasize the vanity of the protagonist. Is the rooster in My Mother's Rhapsody hinting at the old woman's spiritual or mental state? Then again, it could be a decision completely unrelated to vaudevillian montage editing. My attention happened to be arrested by the pure visual of it—the oil-shine of the rooster's neck and its sturdy claws. The director's intercutting of close-ups of the rooster’s body is a visual delight, but as images, they do not necessarily convey their meaning. My Mother's Rhapsody is the director's newest work. In comparison with his previous film Madame, it demonstrates a maturing rhetoric—an increased directionality and precision of his semantics are stronger than his earlier works.

 

The father in My Mother's Rhapsody uses his own words to expound upon his mother's life. He attributes his mother's psychological disposition, while pregnant with twins, to the political vicissitudes of the time, and attributes the resulting character traits of his siblings to their mother’s psychological disposition. Thus, private family affairs assume a faintly discernible historical depth. According to Qiu Jiongjiong, the symbolism of the rooster—struggle and pride—is indeed a metaphor for his protagonist's life condition. Yet his metaphors balance out a taste for "play"—the director taking on a chubby persona, playing the part of Cupid. This is a Qiu Jiongjiong's consistent technique. He uses a kind of humor and charm to dispel the solemnity of historical oratory, thus providing his audience a lighthearted view of a life unfolding.

 

In the director's films, the occasional reconstructed scene appears as a prompt, but what perplexes the viewer the most is the insertion of entirely irrelevant images. Often this throws the sequential nature of the film into confusion. The editing style reflects the director's heavy hand, yet each image contains an associative meaning—neither fixed nor forced, but rather, instinctual and poetic. On the one hand, they contrive to function as a kind of narrative device. On the other hand, they serve as finishing touches. And on another hand, they make for a dynamic visual aesthetic.

 

Qiu's earlier film Portrait of Mr. Huang (2006-2009) is a short film depicting an old policeman recounting the cases he handled while playing mahjong—stories of the maggot which crawled onto his hand during an autopsy, a man who killed a barefoot village doctor, and who proceeded to pass off her flesh as wild boar meat, dividing it amongst relatives, and he himself who made human liver and pepper stir-fry to eat. Filming all this is mere novelty-seeking, the effect of which is no different than commercial thriller movies. The film is interspersed with the director's voiceover, presented in a singsong storytelling style, and brief interludes of Sichuan opera. This film is like a traditional Chinese opera program, orchestrated for pure entertainment. A material originally endowed with the potential for social analysis and the revelation of human nature, in the hands of Qiu Jiongjiong, was rendered a flat surface, its social relevance averted. As a result, the film possesses a spirit of entertainment and an aesthetic approach, yet remains devoid of any moral risk taking. After the telling of the story, the following narration is presented:

 

“It's getting dark. It's cooling down. The cicadas are still chirping. Under this kind of atmosphere, better to find a place to have a drink. Have a little drink, order a few stir-fry dishes. A liver and pepper stir-fry, please.”

 

This narration contains a certain conscientiousness: it is a way to make the action of the story represent the passing of one's time. Additionally, there is a strong element of "play" involved. In an interview, Qiu Jiongjiong said, "I keep on pushing for a playful expression—something completely unrelated to the event in question. All along, my lies have been sincere.” These words corroborate my suspicions.

 

Admittedly, Qiu Jiongjiong is good at eliciting the “amusement of life” aspect in his films. However, if it stops at humorous repartee as a means to whittle away the time, it cannot reach a higher level of conscientiousness. This is a pity. Qiu Jiongjiong's films do reveal a kind of conscientiousness. He does not merely wallow in mundane "playtime.” Ever able to turn the topic on its head, he demonstrates a degree of transcendental contemplation. Yet his critical thinking ability does not find a compelling expression, and is intentionally or otherwise left to matter of divine intervention.

 

Qiu's paternal grandfather was a famous Joker character of Sichuan opera. During the 20th Anniversary of his passing, there was a commemoration ceremony. Ode to Joy (2007-2008, 31 minutes) is a documentation of the dress rehearsal. Before age 10, Qiu Jiongjiong would run home from school to play amidst the theatrical troupe. They say that Qiu's grandfather gave him a childhood filled with wonder and warmth. Unfortunately, he passed away when the director was age 10. The film intercuts footage from the dress rehearsal with completely unrelated outdoor scenes. For example, when the host presents National People's Congress Representative so-and-so and when the Theatre Director gives a speech, he places a audio track of people casting nets by the riverside over the soundtrack—throwing off the audiences visual perception. The made-up face of the old man seems to have a deep emotional bond with the deceased—his speech is unmatched in its degree of emotion—and yet the director's sound treatment starts and stops. The subtitles are likewise treated haphazardly, perhaps to indicate the drifting or preoccupation of the speaker’s actual, on-site listeners. The speaker’s priority may not be the next person's priority. As often is the case during commemoration ceremonies, attendees experience difficulties in concentration and are incapable of obtaining a satisfactory communication. Ode to Joy illustrates the impossibility of reminiscence and the impossibility of sharing.

 

The same conscientiousness is evident in The Moon Palace. The Moon Palace "converges the tastes of the masses and satiates the stomachs of a hundred surnames." Traditionally, the restaurant, banquet hall, and food and wine hold a place in the heart of Chinese culture, as a means of "culinary treatment" to the condition of our limited human existence. The film is brimming with discussion of the contents inhabiting drinking glasses and serving platters. The film's main protagonist Mr. Qiu—the director's father—expounds upon the meaning of alcohol in his life. Most of the characters present are fond of drinking, and alcohol here is revered as a substance used to unleash the forces of self-knowledge. The director himself is fond of drinking, and the production of The Moon Palace carries with it the strong scent of alcohol. Although the editing evokes feelings of intoxication and the narrative often loses its focus, the film has a basic structure. The first half is comprised of his father's generation's poetic banter and dealings. They even get together as a large group to go swimming in the river. In the latter half of the film, the focus shifts to the director's generation. They reminisce their adolescence which they spent on restaurant premises. They love their high protein, high fat diets—one youngster among them declares his "passion for life". Said "passion for life" ostensibly refers to his love of high protein foods. The result of such a “passion for life” is a premature affliction with diabetes, a fatty liver, and the associated grief thereof. The worship of alcohol as a religion and an overindulgence in epicurean tastes have thus resulted in physiological obstructions. In life, the temporal nature of the physical body inevitably rears its ugly head. What happens when the yoga of the body fails to provide for the fulfillment of the spirit?

 

Life is short, make merry while you can—but for how long? For the Chinese, alcohol embodies poetic feelings. It embodies a consciousness of life. But to regard alcohol as religion often times does not aid in the task of being alive. Often times, it serves only to obstruct and make people forget things. Sooner or later, people are faced with what they forget, and in that moment, the anxiety of meaning appears.

 

Inasmuch, the ending of the film is regarding death. The characters in the film discuss death in positive light. They say when members of the Qiu family pass away, their ashes are scattered in the water. They mention that in the future they should set off firecrackers, and toss the ashes into the river as they would firecrackers. The closing scene is shot in a boat overlooking the water. "Great-grandfather," "grandfather," "father," "son".... the characters appear as titles, one of top of the other over the water. The cacophony prior in the film are all laid to rest in a final background of death.

 

The film ends on a long shot of the river surface—the water surface seemingly far too vacuous and void. It is a void of meaning. But it is a calm void.

 

To date, all of the films of Qiu Jiongjiong I have seen are in black and white. This is most likely a formal preference, yet it manages to elicit a feeling or attitude of something long lost or just out of reach. This attitude contains a "hyper-consciousness." The abundance of poetry in his films, the quick wit, and—as I mentioned earlier—the preference for decisions based on "play" being greater than those based on society (the pursuit of play contains in it a consciousness of life)—all of these differentiate him entirely from the past 30 years of independent Chinese film development, its traditions, and its mainstream. Thus, the films of Qiu Jiongjiong have led me to encounter a scene of "empty mountain, fresh rain." I smell the scent of something verdant and lush—a breath of fresh air.

 

July 2011

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