In the opening title sequence of Liu Jian’s animated dramedy Art College 1994 (艺术学院, yìshùxuéyuàn), a beetle tries to climb a decaying wall but repeatedly fails until it falls on its back and flails wildly trying to right itself. It might in a way stand in for Liu’s protagonists, each of whom are floundering in various ways amid the contradictions of the rapid social changes of mid-90s China. A potent sense of place lends weight to what is obviously an autobiographically inspired tale of youth’s end coloured by rueful nostalgia.
The rebellious Xiaojun clashes with his tutors who think he’s overly influenced by Western art movements and lacks the maturity to understand that there is also truth in traditionalism, while his best friend Rabbit begins to worry about more practical matters and their future in a changing society. The boys eventually develop a friendship with music students Lili and Hong who find themselves similarly at odds. Brash and brimming with false confidence, Hong dreams of becoming a famous opera singer and resents the patriarchal social mores of a still conservative China. “Sooner or later we all have to marry someone.” Lili sighs as if feeling the walls closing in on her, only for Hong to ask why no one ever realises they’re “someone” too.
They have grand conversations about the nature of art, beauty, tradition and modernity, conservatism and social change, belying their naivety but still filled with a sense of freedom and curiosity that is only beginning to be coloured by a concurrent anxiety. “I thought I knew everything. The truth is I know nothing.” Hong finally concedes after a failed romance, arguing with Lili with whom she may always have been on a different page. Shy and bespectacled, Lili is a realist amid a group of dreamers. She nurses a nascent crush on Xiaojun but is courted by a condescending bore who comes with her mother’s approval. Perhaps she’s merely afraid of the risks involved when real feeling is in play, but for all her talk of “freedom” makes her choices intellectually and leans towards the pragmatic. Xiaojun is a penniless painter, but her suitor is a wealthy man who can take her to Paris to study. Amid the contradictions of mid-90s China, who could really blame her for making a “sensible” choice even it means the sacrifice of her emotional fulfilment?
Xiaojun lets his chance slip away from him, failing to say anything meaningful before revealing he’s going away on a study trip for an extended period of time. But like Lili he meditates on art and the soul while romanticising a poverty he may never really have experienced. The boys hang out with eccentric drifter Youcai who repeatedly failed the entrance exams but hangs around on campus anyway soaking up the atmosphere while prone to sudden attacks of performance art. After a stint living in the artist community in Beijing he returns in the company of crooks and conmen, working as a sign painter to get by while lamenting his own lack of talent. He says he makes money in order to make art, while Xiaojun disapproves of his moral duplicity insisting that it’s right for an artist to be starving because suffering fosters art.
Youcai asks him how you can make art if you can’t eat while insisting that art is one big business, just like everything else it too is suspect because it is dependent on money. Xiaojun disagrees, claiming that that art is the only escape from reality that can bring people spiritual satisfaction. Ironically enough, he says this while sitting directly underneath a billboard advertising Michael Jackson’s Bad, while we’ve already seen him ride his bicycle past a conspicuous piece of graffiti featuring the characters for CocaCola in Chinese. When Lili’s suitor says he’ll buy them dinner, Liu ironically cuts to the two girls sitting outside a McDonald’s eating ice cream. This does seem to be a very dubious sense of “modernity”, mediated through Western consumerism that in contrast to the values Xiaojun places in “art” is spiritually empty.
Even so his disapproving teacher reminds him that great art is born of sincerity, hinting at a degree of affectation in his insistence that art should change with the times when not all truths need to be revolutionary. In any case, each of the students learns a few hard lessons about life and disappointment as they too succumb to unavoidable realities and accustom themselves to an uncertain society. Liu ends the film with a series of title cards that feel very much like those often added to placate the censors, usually detailing that wrongdoers were caught and punished for their crimes but this time conjuring more wholesome futures for the students that undercut the sense of the frosty melancholy in the closing scenes which leave Xiaojun all alone as he takes up brush and ink. Yet in Liu’s achingly potent sense of place, there is both a poignant nostalgia and an inescapable sense of loss and regret for the missed opportunities of youth.
Art College 1994 screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.
Trailer (English subtitles)