Shiny Shelf

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Rizhao Chongqing (Chongqing Blues)

By Jim Smith on 22 October 2010

Wang Xiaoshuai’s ‘Shanghai Dreams’ was a highlight of 2005’s London Film Festival, arriving on a wave of polite, well-considered hype shortly after picking up the Jury Prize at Cannes and playing to small but appreciative audiences.

Five years on Wang’s work is again on show in London, propelled again by an equally considered ripple of enthusiasm and appreciation.

(London missed out on his last picture, ”In Love We Trust’,  entirely – as indeed did Cannes and Venice –  it premièred at Berlin where it picked up a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay.)

That Wang’s return should be so anticipated and so long coming strikes you as oddly appropriate when viewing ‘Rizahao Chingqing’, which is a film which is profoundly concerned with questions of delay, return and longing.

Lin (the outstanding Wang Xuqei) is  a sea Captain who returns to the city where he once made his home upon hearing that his son has been shot dead by police. In the context of both western assumptions about China and Wang’s own well-documented struggles with state censorship and control it is easy to see how this could be expected to be a profoundly political film.

It isn’t one.

The surprise is how the political, and indeed social, possibilities of the story being told here are eschewed at almost every turn.  Instead, while this begins as something very much about one man’s quest to understand what happened on the day his son died, it slowly and steadily evolves into something largely concerned with that man’s realisation of how badly he failed as a father to his son.

The slow, coolly beautiful photography showcases the city’s height and width, creating a very different world to the rural landscapes of ‘Shanghai Dreams’. The opening shot, in which the audience and Lin take a cable care into the city is dizzyingly effective, conveying the scale of both Chongqing and the task ahead of Lin.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Wang’s work has always been immersive. Here he finds a ways to add an almost synaesthetic element to his cinema. An example: one scene features a long, slow close up of a woman crying on a beach. The combination of her freely rolling tears and crashing noises of an angry ocean pushes your sensory buttons sufficiently that you can almost feel the catch of a saline odour in your throat.

Wang’s camera has two basic modes here, a series of roving, shuffling tight shots as Lin paces through the city’s streets and alleys which gives way to huge, painterly vistas whenever he stops moving. The result is a film which is as much background as foreground, even as the specifics of its setting become increasingly irrelevant. (Again, an example: When we see sweatshops – the late Lin Bo’s mother works in one – they are treated entirely matter of factly, as a landscape through which the alienated, increasingly desperate Lin must move.

It is a compliment to, not a dismissal of, ‘Rizhao Chongqing’, to say that in a sense it could be set in any city in any country. The core of the film is Lin’s journey, during which he finds something largely different to what he thought he was looking for. (There’ll probably be a Hollywood remake set in Detroit, starring a middle aged fading star, before the end of the decade. It would work well, if done properly.)

At the risk of repeating wholesale what I said when reviewing ‘Shanghai Dreams’, it’s good that filmmakers like Wang get some exposure in Europe. This is not just because of the high quality of their work, but also because it can hopefully help shift a general assumption that Chinese cinema’s strengths lie entirely within, or are restricted to, producing the (admittedly hugely enjoyable) likes of ‘Hero’, ‘The House of Flying Daggers’ , ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ et al.

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