Weekend Lover (周末情人, Lou Ye, 1995)

Lou Ye’s troubles with the censors began at the very beginning of his career. Shot in 1993, his first feature Weekend Lover (周末情人, Zhōumò Qíngrén) was held up until late ’95, making ’94’s Don’t Be Young his accidental “debut”. Set in the contemporary era the film nevertheless has a strong sense of melancholy nostalgia coupled with air of nihilism that perhaps distressed the censors more than the otherwise potentially problematic bohemian setting, finding the post-Tiananmen generation floundering in a changing China in which the dream of freedom has long since flown. 

In one of many title cards, Lou opens with a lengthy piece of text claiming that this is a true story, a claim he will return to with the closing card the fantastical quality of which perhaps undermines the idea of its “reality”. The author of the text claims that this is a story some did not want to tell but mostly because it makes them sad to recall bygone days for reasons we will come to understand. Nevertheless, the filmmakers claim to have tracked down the central figure of Lixin (Ma Xiaoqing) who has agreed to share her story, which turns out to be the story of two men, violent thug Axi (Jia Hongsheng) and sensitive musician Lala (Wang Zhiwen), who find themselves bound for confrontation in order to lay claim to the affections of Lixin. 

Axi is the “weekend lover” of the title, a high school boyfriend of Lixin’s who used to spend weekends in her apartment while her parents were out but later went to prison for killing another boy who threatened their relationship. Lixin vows to wait, but ends up meeting Lala in a case of mistaken identity tasked with venturing into the unfamiliar world of back street pool halls to find a man in plaid in order to deliver something on behalf of Axi. The pair start dating, but Axi returns unexpectedly some years later put out to realise that Lixin has forgotten him and quite literally moved on. Hoping to get her back he threatens Lala and later Lixin herself, remaining somewhat obsessed with recapturing the past while little more than a violent street thug with nothing to offer other than intimidation. 

One could see Axi and Lala as embodiments of past and future with Lixin trapped painfully in an interminable present. Lala dreams of becoming a singer, eventually joining a band with whom Lixin also becomes friends hanging out in the beatnik bohemian space of the disused building she decribes as a “jail” they repurpose as their arena. Yet even this potential future is flawed. The band’s leader (Wang Xiaoshuai) explains to Lala that they will disband after their big concert as most of the members are going abroad, perhaps he will even go to America. There is no future for any of them in China while Lala rejects the idea he may stay and marry Lixin, realising she has not completely severed her connection to Axi believing their relationship is doomed to failure. 

Westernisation is indeed a persistent background theme from the discarded Coke cans, Marlboro cigarettes, and Lipton tea in Axi’s rundown room to the fancy new fast-food restaurant where Lixin works going under the name “California Rainbow”. These Bohemians dream of Western freedoms aside from the power of consumerism, longing for the right to seize their artistic potential but finding themselves continually constrained by a society they do not understand. “We drank a lot, always felt we were the most miserable and that society didn’t understand us. Later I came to realise it’s not that society didn’t accept us it’s that we didn’t understand society” Lixin explains in voiceover apparently from the vantage point of “many years” later in which she seems to have in part at least rejected her countercultural youth and developed an understanding of the contemporary society. 

Nevertheless, the film closes with both her wilful self-exile and an improbably optimistic coda which may only be a reflection of her dream followed by the title card which suggests that the couple may find happiness but only “many years later” in another city. “We felt the whole world belonged to us, as if everything would last forever. But we didn’t know what would happen.” Lixin laments, recalling her brief moment of youthful freedom later ruptured by the re-introduction of the violent past in a touch of rather elliptical irony that perhaps evokes Lou’s later taste for non-linear narrative. Moody yet imbued with a kind of youthful ennui, Weekend Lover’s frequent use of title cards, pop music, and self-consciously cool imagery may never quite coalesce beyond their various influences but edge towards an attempt to capture youth in a new age of anxiety caught between the death of idealism and the opportunities of a newly consumerist economy. 

Weekend Lover is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Musical sequence (English subtitles)

Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to compete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents’ love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.

Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Together (和你在一起, Chen Kaige, 2002)

together engIt’s a sad truth, but talent isn’t enough to see you succeed in the wider world. In fact, all having talent means is that unscrupulous people will seek to harness themselves to you in the hope of achieving the kind of success which they are incapable of obtaining for themselves. 13 year old Xiaochun is about a learn a series of difficult life lessons in Chen Kaige’s Together (和你在一起, Hé nǐ zài yīqǐ), not least of them what true fatherhood means and whether the pursuit of fame and fortune is worth sacrificing the very passion that brought you success in the first place.

Xiaochun lives with his father Liu Cheng in a small rural town where he is known for his prowess with the fiddle. In fact, he even gets called in to play some calming violin music at the birth of a local bigwig’s child. After a little boy emerges safely into the world, the bigwig tries to give Liu some money which he refuses but Xiaochun later takes. The big wig congratulates Xiaochun on his understanding of how the world works, unlike his honest and sentimental father.

However, what Liu wants for his son is success so he takes the boy to the big city and enters him in a violin contest. He comes fifth but the contest is rigged in favour of donors to the school and no one wants to take on a poor country bumpkin for a pupil. Eventually Liu convinces an eccentric, lonely professor, Jiang, to give Xiaochun lessons and the pair start to build up a paternal relationship. Xiaochun also makes friends with the beautiful but equally eccentric woman from upstairs, Lili, while his father tries to find work to pay for all these lessons. Eventually Liu ends up at a swanky recital and tries to get Xiaochun to switch to the more successful professor Yu who’s all cold calculation and designer sweaters. This sudden bid for mainstream success drives a wedge between father and son who have very different ideas of what it means to be a “successful” person.

Together isn’t quite the film it seems to set out to be. You’d expect professor Jiang’s broken heart to take more of a centre stage but no sooner have we invested our time in Jiang’s back story of tragic romance than Xiaochun is swept away to the corporate music factory that is Yu’s upscale apartment. We’ve already seen how money and status are everything in this game, donate big bucks to the school and your kid gets the shiny trophy regardless of their actual talent. A depressingly realistic scene right after the contest sees Jiang trying to give a lesson to a clearly disinterested boy while his trashily dressed mother yells at someone on a blinged up cellphone from the other room. When the pair angrily declare they won’t be coming back, the boy is strangely grateful to Jian for “letting him quit” this annoying hobby that his mum obviously made him practice as a kind of status symbol despite the fact he has no ear for music.

Liu is just too bumpkinish for Beijing life, he’s simple and honest which are not good qualities to have in a big city. He insists on wearing a big red hat all the time which screams “not local”, and he even keeps his money in it so, of course, it gets stolen. That said, it’s Liu who wants his son to have the big bucks and a secure life of the kind that Yu can offer him. He sincerely wants this for Xiaochun and is prepared to get out of his way if necessary. Jiang wanted to teach him music and would have done it for free. Yu wants to use him to bolster his own success and is prepared to manipulate him in extremely cruel ways in order to get what he wants out of him. Tellingly, Yu already had a prize pupil living his apartment who is now forced to compete with Xiaochun for Yu’s attention. Now there’s a better prospect on the table, she is being abandoned despite a host of promises and all her hard work. Yu is a businessman, Jiang is an artist.

Now the boy has to choose between three fathers and three futures as he considers just giving up and going home with his father, giving in to Yu’s corporate demands and losing the love he had for playing his instrument in a simple and heartfelt way, or following Jiang’s teachings which, ironically, are all about following the heart. After an extremely late and cruelly presented revelation, Xiaochun has even more to think about with this question but ultimately what matters is heart more than money as a hand knitted sweater proves warmer than an expensive fur coat.

Together has a number of structural problems that frustrate its passage either as a Hollywood influenced feel good tale of a poor boy and his violin or a gritty indie movie about how talent doesn’t matter in a world ruled by social status and reputation (which is sort of like a futures market in an odd way, everyone buying into something which doesn’t quite exist). Liu and Xiaochun meet a lot of nice “salt of the Earth” people in the big city (except for Yu) but are perpetually locked out of the next stage of the game through not having the right connections. Liu, in his simple and honest way, doesn’t understand this so he’s able to pressure right through it but his son who is more pure hearted but also practical finds navigating its series of traps and temptations endlessly confusing. Edging into sentimentality in the final third, Chen can’t quite bring his sonata to the crescendo he seems to be aiming for but still finishes with a warmly received round of applause.

Together was released in the UK by Momentum under the title Together with You (presumably to avoid confusion with Lukas Moodyson’s film of the same title released not long before) which is a more literal, if slightly awkward, translation of the original Chinese. The disc itself and menu screen both remain “Together”. The UK disc may be technically OOP but the film is also available in the US from MGM.