Crouching China, Hidden Agenda

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Dutiful rebellion: A scene from "Frozen"

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Ning Ying's drily comic "On the Beat" (1995) is about the huddlers. These small-town cops give the third degree to the town's criminal element: the three-card monte dealer, a family hiding its pet dog. The police-station interrogations have the sly, confounding humor of "Hill Street Blues." One suspect says he comes from the same tiny place that was Gong Li's home town in Zhang Yimou's "The Story of Qiu Ju." When was he born? "October 1, 1949" — the birthday of the People's Republic. Another is asked his political affiliation? None, he replies. "Wrong," the cop says. "You belong to the masses." Everyone appears to be putting everyone else on. Or is each person only fooling himself?

Red Beads
Mute sufferers: "Red Beads"

He Jianjun's "Red Beads" (1995) is about the mute sufferers. In a mental hospital, the only person who cares is a young orderly. He takes special interest in a lovely woman who is scheduled for a lobotomy; this emotional (read: political) brainwashing will, the doctor says optimistically, take away her bad thoughts. "She'll be more peaceful," he tells the woman's mother. The film is almost as sedated as the patients, which makes the audacity of the surgery all the more horrifying.

The clawers, the strivers, are mostly criminals, like Liang Xiao Wu, the protagonist of Jia Zhangke's impressive first feature. In the town of Fengyang, Xiao Wu (Wang Hongwei, a non-professional who kept busy by also serving as production manager) is a thief with scruples: He won't accommodate himself to the system. An old partner in crime now has done just that — gone legit, selling (illegal) cigarettes and running a karaoke club (bordello) — and is now deemed a model citizen. Xiao Wu is spurned by him, harassed by the police, cursed by his father ("I should have drowned you in the urinal when you were born," he says, sounding like one of the Sopranos). At the bordello, Xiao Wu hooks up with a "dumb blonde" hostess but won't get into the karaoke spirit; he won't sing, don't ask him. On his own, though, in a deserted bathroom, he's Caruso. Finally, arrested for pickpocketing, he is handcuffed in public and left to be stared at by the curious city folk. He is a zoo creature, behind the bars of public opprobrium. Or a cur at the bottom of a well.

The baring of fangs needn't signal hatred. It could be hunger for another's flesh or soul. The mail carrier in "Postman" is one such ravenous spirit. His crime and his gift is his realization that others feel the same need to reach outside oneself. He reads the letters he is to deliver: the whispers of love, lust, fear in a closed society; loneliness begging for another voice to answer, in harmony or dissonance. The voice is the postman's, once he takes the next step and writes responses as if he were the people who hadn't answered these pleas for a little human contact. He Jianjun touches the viewer as well. He has a sense of the winsomeness of voyeuristic obsession, and the small, spare elegances of camera placement, almost worthy of the late, great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski.

A girl takes her love to me And it's like wind and rain in my face.
— final song from "Beijing Bastards"

In a regimented society like China's, eroticism is anarchy à deux. Of all the affronts to a Sino-censor's propriety, the expression of sexuality has to be the cardinal sin. Of all the potent images in the Sixth Generation films, none is more shocking than the first closeups, in "The Days," of a passionate kiss in the semi-dark. The thermometer calibrating these freon-cold movies suddenly rises, explodes — not because the same intensity hasn't been mimed a hundred thousand times in Western films, but because two people cease being political metaphors and are exposed as participants in the most intimate form of rebellion and communion.

A few of the Sixth Generation films on display veer toward the priapic. "Postman" makes that turn in its final third. In the background of the post office we have noticed a woman at her work: standing at a table she sends out a rhythmic tattoo stamping letters (two beats on the ink pad, one of the envelope). For most of the film it is just background noise (a sound, representing the brisk manual labor needed to keep a clumsy old machine like the Chinese postal system functioning). But there is a feral energy to her pounding. Sometimes she wails like Krupa; she seems to be working out her erotic frustrations. And perhaps we have thought, for a second, that the actress has a sullen sensuality that is wasted in a bit player's role.

So one night the postman and the pounder fall awkwardly into each other's cravings. Later, at her place, he watches her wash (a rare example of female nudity in a Mainland picture). The sequence is just an interlude in the film's thesis: the irresistible rise of a wayward employee with an illicit but decent heart. Still, it marks He Jianjun as a master of erotic subtlety and longing.

Two films in the Walter Reade series are about sex, though they aren't sexy. Wang Quanan's 1999 "Lunar Eclipse" is a romantic mystery with two familiar premises: a well-off couple's complacency is punctured by the arrival of a younger man (the plot of Roman Polanski's "Knife in the Water," among many other films); and a man finds, in one woman, the exact image of another he loved and lost (the same idea emerges in Lou Ye's superior "Suzhou River," made in Shanghai the following year). Chicly made in a sort of East Asian MTV style, the film hoards a few narrative surprises till the end. It's a smooth entertainment.

"Mr. Zhao," the first film directed by the noted cinematographer Lu Yue (he shot three Zhang Yimou films, Tian's "On the Hunting Ground' and Joan Chen's "Xiu Xiu"), is not smooth, but a bit more than an entertainment. Zhao Qiankun, a teacher of traditional Chinese medicine in Shanghai, is discovered by his wife in an adulterous affair with one of his former students, who has just discovered she's pregnant. Will he leave the one for the other? He doesn't want to decide; he's a practiced evader. What's clear is that his wife plays the role of the exasperated mother, his mistress the role of the spoiled daughter. Both could use lessons in how to handle a sympathetic philanderer.

The director's style is visually stark, cramped, invasive. He crowds his characters and waits, with a scientist's or a sadist's patience, for them to crumble. Until the final reel, the film is basically four long confrontations: Zhao and his wife, Zhao and his girlfriend, the three together and Zhao with a stranger at a hospital. The actors get plenty of room to behave, improvise, emote — all those Western tactics that this cast is not entirely comfortable with. Finally Zhao must decide to whom his heart belongs. We won't say who is the beneficiary of his first spontaneous, generous moment, but it's emotionally and cinematically impressive; the film pirouettes and takes flight.

These are just 12 films out of the 1,500 or so made in the People's Republic in the '90s. Some Chinese films don't fit our generalizations, and they are missing from these series. The period dramas "Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker" and "The Wooden Man's Bride" are too colorful for this crowd; they would be dismissed an inappropriate, like a flamenco dancer at a nun's funeral. Jiang Wen's "In the Heat of the Summer," undoubtedly the decade's most cogently energetic Chinese film, is too boisterous.

There is a temptation for Western viewers to scrutinize these films with a Chinese censor's eyes, looking for political criticism or social irony in every frame. Of course, what is belligerent folly to the censor is political and artistic bravery to us. Some of the festival prizes given to Sixth Generation films seem like Purple Hearts, a citation for valor in the face of institutional myopia, rather than for cinematic achievement. These people work so hard, and under such demeaning conditions! It's true that, sometimes, the story behind a Sixth Generation work is more compelling than the story in it. And some of these films are not much more than glum. If a film is going to catalog woe, it'd be nice if it had a pulse. It's a stretch, asking moviegoers to pay to see films that say, "Things are bad here too."

But, really, why not give points for integrity? The message may not quite touch the glory of art, but it is authentic. The narrator of "Frozen" considers the death of a performance artist and asks, "Wasn't a life too high a price to pay for a work of art?" But a friend of the deceased rises to his defense: "He sacrificed his life to show that he lived among murderers." Squeeze a little of the melodrama from that statement, and it could apply to the Sixth Generation filmmakers: They risk their careers to deliver uncomfortable truths. The least we can do is to be like He Jianjun's postman. When someone cries out with such rigor and fervor, listen to the anguished noise. There may be music in it — a major strain, in a minor key.

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