Drifted in Life (流水无尽, Shen Lianlian, 2021)

“People leave eventually. We’ve spent enough on him” the wife of a man drifting between life and death eventually concedes in Shen Lianlian’s indie drama Drifted in Life (流水无尽, liúshuǐ wújìn). In the modern China it seems everything has a price, not least a human life, but more than that it has a debt which must be satisfied at all costs. This is something with which the disparate members of a small family beset by lingering tragedy are each faced as they try to negotiate new paths forward while bound by ancient loyalties and traditions. 

This is certainly true for Keyu whose parents weren’t even going to call him when his grandfather is left in critical condition after a bathhouse accident lest they disrupt his working life. According to the incredibly offhand and somewhat insensitive doctors Renkai’s case is hopeless, his spine is severed at such a point that he has lost connection with his lower body and almost certainly will not be able to breathe without a ventilator. The family start planning the funeral on the car ride home, but the grandmother finds it impossible to let her husband go insisting that they leave him in the hospital just in case a miracle may happen while the rest of the family do what they can to sort out the bills, the originally unsympathetic doctor eventually warming to them in their devotion and agreeing to use an expensive drug to alleviate Renkai’s symptoms while reminding the grandmother that he will not recover.  

Kebo, Keyu’s bother, becomes indignant and enraged taking it out on the owner of the bathhouse for his apparently lax safety standards only for him to justify himself that he’s only a “small business” an excuse that becomes a refrain justifying commercial entities’ exploitation of employees and avoidance of complying with regulations. Keyu too is worried about “restructuring” at his company, while his wife’s is constantly laying people off and she fears for her own job while dealing with a temperamental diva artist who accuses her of being a sellout only interested in making money out of him. Meanwhile he ends up crushed between two conflicting loyalties seeking to make use of his relationship with an important client tasked by both the company that he works for and a desperate childhood friend with a “small business” of his own. Both Keyu and his wife opt for a kind of escape, he by betraying his company to put his friend forward for the contract and she starting a side hustle with the artist that seems like it will end up being more trouble than it’s worth but each of them wind up betrayed by their own choices. 

And then there’s the bad example their working culture seems to have been setting for their small daughter Weiwei who takes her new managerial responsibilities too seriously when made a monitor at kindergarten apparently hitting another child while collecting homework. Kebo meanwhile is also filled with resentment plunging his family, including his pregnant girlfriend to whom he is not yet technically married it seems for financial reasons, into even more debt after getting arrested for attacking the bathhouse owner and facing a lengthy sentence while his father ironically does something similar by getting into an altercation with a neighbouring stall owner after deciding to resume his butchery business to help pay grandpa’s medical bills. The matter is only resolved thanks to a neighbour who has a connection in the local police pressuring the bath house owner to back down and agree to a settlement out of court. 

Grandpa’s life becomes accidentally commodified as the family tot up how much it’s costing them to keep him in the hospital, even grandma eventually conceding that he has very little quality of life while coming to terms with her grief almost as if she were satisfying herself that they’d done “enough” to fulfil their obligation to him at least in monetary terms. “What’s the point of living like that?” Weiwei had tried to ask her dad, wondering why they’re keeping her grandfather alive while he drifts between life and death unable to communicate though she might as well be taking about herself or anyone else caught between the contradictions of the modern China and looking for release from its purgatorial grip. 

Drifted in Life streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Chang’e (常娥, Shen Lianlian, 2021)

A middle-aged woman’s stultifying life in rural China is momentarily enlivened by the arrival of a man who organises ceremonies for the dead in Shen Lianlian’s naturalist drama, Chang’e (常娥, Cháng é). Named for the goddess of the moon in Chinese mythology, Shen’s film finds its embittered heroine lonely and resentful while also consumed with guilt over her desire to feel something more only to have her hopes of a new life dashed and like the goddess find herself alone as if marooned on a distant planet. 

Shen opens the scene with the noisy clanging of the factory where 55-year-old Xiaoxiang (Wang Xiaoxiang) works, its repetitive rhythms marking out her life with dull futility. Foul mouthed and angry, she snaps at those around her not least her 30-year old bachelor son who shows no desire to get married while repeatedly reminding her that there’s nothing he can do but wait until a new apartment he wants to buy becomes available for sale. Meanwhile they discuss the death of a neighbour living in very similar circumstances to Xiaoxiang who is later revealed to have taken her own life. 

This ominous event, however, presents new possibilities to Xiaoxiang who takes a liking to the mysterious middle-aged man who arrives to help them conduct the local death rites despite having previously criticised her neighbours for being unable to carry them out themselves. Because of a lack of available accommodation, Xiaoxiang ends up hosting him in her apartment and enjoying a sense of domesticity long absent from her life as her husband works away and rarely returns home. It’s at this point that she begins having bad dreams finding herself trapped in a rising bucket while the machine hammers behind her or walking around a market where the chicken’s feet remind her of human hands and she notices an embroidered shoe floating in the water. 

Like the goddess Chang’e, Xiaoxiang has a pet rabbit she keeps in a cage with whom she closely identifies unable to escape the prison of her own existence yet her eventual parting with the creature is less liberation than resignation or even a kind of suicide. Meanwhile she watches a rocket, Chang’e 5, launch for the moon while seated firmly on her sofa. The mysterious man’s arrival may raise the sense of possibility, of a new more emotionally fulfilling life, but he is also of course a spectre of death hovering on the horizon. Along with the paper houses constructed for the ceremony, Xiaoxiang passes fires in front of graves confronting her with the ever present threat of mortality. She is told that the cause of her nightmares lies in having offended the dead for whom she must burn more sacrifices yet nothing seems to cure her anxiety or loneliness. 

In a sense Xiaoxiang is performing her own death rites while coming to an accommodation with the idea that her life will have no more changes, as certain and repetitive as the machine which she operates. Shen captures the crushing disappointment of her small-town existence where even small pleasures such as buying a new coat are guilt-inducing luxuries with an unforgiving naturalism. Xiaoxiang gossips with a colleague suspecting that one of the other workers is being harassed by their boss but otherwise does nothing, her friend reminding her she no longer needs to worry about things like that as she is “not as pretty” as the unfortunate young woman. Using a cast of non-professional actors, the lead actress is indeed a factory worker from the director’s hometown, Shen lends an air of futility to the lives of women like Xiaoxiang while likening her to the distant and melancholy figure of Chang’e who finds herself alone, marooned on a lonely planet solely for her transgressive desires for emotional fulfilment in a life of stultifying productivity. 

Chang’e streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese / English subtitles)