Focused on China’s Fringe

The Asian Wall Street Journal

January 21 2000

Atmospheric intimacy — often viscerally intense — is the hallmark of the Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yuan. This time, he’s found it in the true story of a woman who returns home for Chinese New Year after 17 years imprisonment for accidentally killing her stepsister. Within minutes of its opening scene, “Seventeen Years” — winner of the Best Director Award at the Venice Film Festival this past fall — drops the viewer into the stifling world of adolescent angst as experienced by a pair of stepsisters who are captive to the bitter quarreling of their parents.

Like his earlier works, “Seventeen Years” is distinct from the work of the well-known “fifth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, in its departure from tales that are epic in scope and ideological and political in nature. Instead, as a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, Mr. Zhang, with his urban realist films, marks a groundbreaking paradigm shift toward stories that focus on psychological drama and the intimate interpersonal relationships between families, lovers and peers.

Mr. Zhang, a tall figure whose round face and frizzy hair make him look like a Chinese incarnation of John Belushi, was struck with the idea for “Seventeen Years” when he saw a Chinese television program about the reunion of prisoners with their families. Through arrangements made by a department of the Chinese judiciary, Mr. Zhang visited a number of prisons and interviewed many prisoners and wardens. He discovered that a surprising number of the inmates were women, many of whom were serving long term or life sentences, or were awaiting the death penalty.

“I discovered that every prisoner has an intricate story, and that his or her experience is much more complex than those of people outside of prison,” he says. In keeping with his steadfast efforts to document the stories of real society, the film was shot in an actual prison and mental hospital, revealing these institutions for the first time in a feature film.

At its end, “Seventeen Years” shows an aged mother and father as they open the door to greet their daughter. The interaction between family members is depicted with careful attention as emotions thought long numbed are suddenly thawed. Dazed, the father mumbles of his stepdaughter, “Deep inside I was so afraid of her return. I thought it would be better if she stayed in prison all her life. . . But in my heart, I couldn’t wait for the day for her to return home.”

It is not the first time Mr. Zhang has focused his lens on the intimate details of complex human emotions. His 1996 film “East Palace, West Palace” — China’s first feature film on homosexuality — tells the story of a gay man, A-lan, who becomes obsessed with the policeman charged with purging a hangout for homosexuals in a city park. In the course of one interminable night, the police officer finally acknowledges his desire to reciprocate A-lan’s attention. By the film’s end, which concludes with dawn breaking over an eerily silent Beijing, the story of the two men is so absorbing that one forgets that there are 12 million other inhabitants in the city.

Both films are part of Mr. Zhang’s endeavor to bring the stories of marginalized people to the forefront. His first film, “Mama” (1990), was a stark black-and-white documentary about a single mother in Beijing and her struggle to raise a mentally handicapped son. His subsequent films were all made independently, without official sponsorship from the Chinese government. “Beijing Bastards” (1992) told the story of China’s disaffected angst-ridden youth in the wake of the 1989 student uprisings, and was followed by “The Square” (1994), a documentary of the daily (and mundane) goings-on in Tiananmen, and “Sons” (1995), a wrenching, in-your-face look at a modern family wracked by alcoholism.

The making of “Sons” illustrates Mr. Zhang’s true-to-life methods: after hearing the constant arguments of his downstairs neighbors, the director recruited the four family members (a mother, father and their two sons) to play themselves in the film and “borrowed” the father from the mental asylum to which he had been committed. “Only some men are fathers, but all men are sons,” the father told Mr. Zhang, thus inspiring the name of the film.

This year, Mr. Zhang also finished a documentary, “Crazy English,” about Chinese motivational speaker Li Yang, famed for his unorthodox methods of teaching English to enormous crowds gathered everywhere from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City.

“Crazy life, crazy study, I love this crazy game,” shout a myriad of uninhibited Chinese directly into Mr. Zhang’s camera. Some giggle with embarrassment, but others seem fiercely liberated. Like an army drill sergeant, Mr. Li entreats enthusiastic hordes to tell themselves, “I enjoy losing face! I welcome setbacks! I enjoy pain!” culminating in affirming phrases like, “Never let your country down!”

Mr. Zhang documents these “crazy” methods to capture the bizarre fusion of Chinese nationalism and the urge for advancement via capitalism. “To make yourself qualified for the 21st century, to make more money internationally. To love your country is to study English well,” declares Mr. Li.

Be it through documenting the dissemination of English or holding a spotlight on shadowy issues like incarceration and homosexuality in China, Mr. Zhang illustrates the many facets of, as he describes it, “a society filled with a sense of anxiety about so much change.”

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