Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Wei Shujun, 2021)

“I had to let it happen, I had to change” the rather incongruous voice of Madonna insists, finding a note of defiance on reaching the climactic “so I chose freedom” as the movie version of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina erupts over the closing minutes of Wei Shujun’s Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Yǒng’ān Zhèn Gùshi Jí). Like much of the film, the use of the song is ironic but still somehow poignant its repurposing perfectly expressing the interior lives of each our “characters” who are all in some way or another looking for escape or at least a way out of personal dissatisfaction while trying to film a movie about the inertia of life in a small town in rural China where nothing ever happens. 

Divided into three segments, Wei’s film is as much about the positioning of rural China as it is about “cinema”. A Beijing film crew descend on this provincial small town with their own preconceived notions of rural life, determined not to “romanticise” country living but nevertheless bending it to their will looking only for signifiers that align with their mental image of the hinterlands of their nation. Only latterly do they realise that for true authenticity the film should be in Hunanese, but none of them speak it which is a significant stumbling block in their efforts to overcome ongoing creative differences over the script. 

Wei is, in part, satirising the recent trend in Chinese indie cinema for gritty stories of rural poverty usually filmed with depressing naturalism determined to stress the harshness of life outside of the cities amid the nation’s ever increasing wealth divide. The first chapter in part does this too, later shifting away from early Jia Zhangke towards the neon yearning of Wong Kar-wai but always undercut with a sense of meta irony not least in its choice of heroine. The infinitely cornered Gu (Huang Miyi) longs for “a different life”, trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a gruff man she accuses of working night shifts to get away from their toddler daughter whom she is forced to take to work with her while he constantly undermines all her parenting decisions based on articles sent by his mother. A woman at the market coos over the baby and asks when the next one’s due, Gu crestfallen realising she’s trapped in this small-town existence where nothing ever happens. But then the film crew begin to notice her, telling her she has a “real cinema face” and likening her to Kim Min-hee of whom she has never heard. Their admiration is again ironic, considering they were looking for the authentic face of rural China but taken with this cinematic vision, yet it’s also callous and cruel. They give her false hope, allowing her to dream as she puts on makeup and models costumes only to be forgotten once again when the “real” actress arrives, cast back into a life of quiet desperation. 

Perhaps this too is another unfair stereotype assuming that everyone from a small town longs for escape, but Gu’s story does indeed mimic the earlier parts of the screenplay for the film within the film which the director sees as a tale of a small-town woman’s awakening to independence and agency while the screenwriter Chunlei (Kang Chunlei) opts for an old-fashioned take on consumerist corruption. Shifting away from Gu towards formerly successful actress Chen Chen (Yang Zishan), the second arc pulls towards Chunlei as Chen Chen searches for escape from a rut in her career apparently having left her commercial agent to do more earnest work but doing not much of anything for the previous year. In another meta touch, she is from this rural backwater and like her character in the film chose to leave but now admits that sometimes she misses life in the country. As someone else puts it, city folk all want a return to simple rural life but can’t accept the reality of it which is why the plan to rejuvenate the area largely relies on tourism including the building of a waxwork museum of which Chen Chen is expected to be a notable inclusion as a local girl made good. 

Chen Chen’s image has once again been commodified, stripping her of power or agency over her name and face but on returning to Yong’an she is forced to realise that she is no longer of there, this place where nothing ever happens has already changed while she exists on a slightly different plane. Realising the maid covering her room is a childhood friend she cheerfully tries to reconnect but the woman is awkward and evasive, embarrassed perhaps to acknowledge that she is a mere hotel employee while Chen Chen has achieved her dreams of stardom. Attempts to reconnect with two other male friends similarly backfire, the first a typical provincial bureaucrat who uses her for official business without her consent while a meal with the other’s family proves even less joyful as she endures countless barbed comments from his snippy wife who eventually tries something similar in asking her to find a job for her son on the film. As she’s leaving he asks her the same question the screenwriter obsessed over, suggesting that she left for mercenary reasons only for her to answer that she didn’t want to live like his wife, or indeed like Gu, but wanted “a different life”. 

This battle between image and authenticity lies at the heart of the conflict between the director, a hipsterish festival darling with a sideline in hip hop, and the schlubby screenwriter himself perhaps trapped in the previous generation of Chinese filmmaking but also in his way more idealistic believing in cinema as an art form which can move the world rather than mere entertainment created for commercial gain. He accuses the director of hypocrisy, exploiting the arthouse aesthetic for critical credibility and with it a vision of rural China, while the director criticises him for his old-fashioned mentality in seeking melodrama over message. Shot in cooling blues their heated arguments are noticeably dispassionate, Wei even descending into some ironic iconography which sees the pair talking through their issues with a wise man film critic on a boat on a misty river. The ironic conclusion brings the whole affair full circle as the words of Madonna as Eva Peron come to speak for each of the protagonists, Gu now angrier, impatient as she shifts dishes while her husband idles nearby, and Chen Chen forced to pose next to a wax figure of herself during a launch ceremony for this film in which the script has yet to be “finalised”. “But nothing impressed me at all” the song continues, “I never expected it to” hinting at the contradictions of the modern China in the internalised defeatism of small-town dreams and the cynical filmmakers who exploit them. 


Ripples of Life screens on Oct 11 & 12 as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival

Changfeng Town (长风镇, Wang Jing, 2019)

“One strange thing follows another in this town” according to a world weary saloon owner attempting to process the mysterious theft of a handful of billiard balls. Like a magical realist fable, the village at the centre of Wang Jing’s whimsical nostalgia fest Changfeng Town (长风镇, Chángfēng Zhèn) exists slightly out of time, located at the intersection of memory and longing filled both with a sense of existential ennui and the comforting aimlessness of childhood. Yet even here where time passes and doesn’t the ironies of small-town life pervade as the older hero reflects on the wilful secrets and everyday mysteries which exist even in those places where everyone knows everyone and gossip is the lifeblood of the community. 

Narrated by the young “Scabby” (Song Daiwei), so nicknamed because of a prominent scar on the back of his head, Changfeng Town weaves together several stories set across one theoretical summer as seen through the eyes of a group of small boys continually on their periphery. Set comfortably in a “nostalgic past”, the atmosphere of the town shifts from a restrained post-war, early ‘60s tainted innocence towards something perhaps closer to its more logical position somewhere in the early to mid 1980s which of course places it after the Cultural Revolution but before Tiananmen Square in a China filled with a sense of hope and possibility for a brighter future mirroring perhaps Scabby’s own sense of growing adolescent energy. 

Nevertheless, Changfeng Town is a strange place where strange things do indeed happen though less one after another than all at once. Missing billiard balls, a plague of mice, a purifying flood, arrivals and disappearances each changing the unchanging town in small but marked ways, it’s nevertheless a sense of loneliness that defines each of the intersecting tales most of which have to do with misplaced or unfulfilled love. Redhead (Pema Jyad), the teenage ringleader of the local kids nicknamed for his red rinse hairdo, pines for the most beautiful girl in the village, Cai-xia (Luo Wenqing), half-sister of Scabby’s friend Four Eyes (Liu Xinrong) and box office girl at the local picture house, yet she has taken a liking to lovelorn poet Guang (Tao Taotao) who has just had his heart broken by the local school teacher. Redhead’s widowed mother (Cui Nan), meanwhile, has been carrying on an affair with the married local dentist (Wei Xidi), apparently an open secret in the village, while beloved truck driver Xi-shan (Chen Gang) continues to carry a torch for her knowing his love is impossible because he was involved in the accident which killed her husband. 

Known only as The Mute (San Shugong), an old man travels to the station every day with his parrot presumably hoping to meet someone who never arrives. One of the boys says his mother told him that he does so because he mistakenly thinks he can travel to other places by watching the trains go by, but no one really knows because no one really bothers to try to communicate with him. Some attempt to leave the village, occasionally returning like the much changed Redhead now dressed like someone who’s been to the city bringing back with him gifts of modernity such as a remote control Transformer that provokes a falling out between Four Eyes and Scabby which adds to the narrator’s growing sense of disillusionment, but to return is in many ways to fail, to be consumed by nostalgia and unable to move forward. Changfeng Town is also a charming trap. Scabby will soon outgrow it as spring travels towards autumn, the bald spot on the back of his head which gives him his name fast disappearing rendering him Scabby no more. Yet it will always in a sense be there for him, its residents permanently happy even as people come and go. 

Mirroring the ending of The 400 Blows, one of several films playing in the local cinema which also include Spring in a Small Town, A Touch of Zen, Steamboat Bill, Jr, and Nights of Cabiria among others, Wang closes with a freeze frame leaving Scabby “running towards the unknown” abandoning nostalgia in search of the elusive happiness of those who remain behind. Shot with a wistful ethereality, Changfeng Town marries an earthy, small-town rurality with an ironic absurdism as the various stories of its melancholy protagonists weave in and out of each other while remaining strangely unknown in the ever constant, ever changing village of nostalgia.


Changfeng Town streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)