It's an emotionally detatched, distant art film with almost no narrative. The Toronto International Film Festival called it the second best film of the decade (with another Zhang Ke Jia film coming third). That's just one of a number of "best films of the 2000s" lists it's on. It either won or was nominated for plenty of film festival prizes, including a nomination for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Les Cahiers du cinema called it one of the ten best films of the year.
It bored the arse off me and I bailed halfway through. Gordon Bennett, that was painful.
It's not really about its characters. It has some, but any scenes of potential emotional involving them tend to be seen at a distance. Instead it's really about what it was like to live in Communist China during 1979-1989. We don't often think about it in the West, but the Thatcher/Reagan decade (the 1980s) should probably be better remembered for a parallel but far more revolutionary move to capitalism in China under Deng Xiaoping. Mao Zedong died in 1976, having ruled over a communist regime that had killed an estimated 40-70 million of its own people through starvation, forced labour and executions. Xiaoping on the other hand wanted China to have a market economy. He got purged twice during the Cultural Revolution, but in 1978 he was still there and he eventually managed to outmaneuver Zedong's chosen successor. The result was that he turned China down the centrally planned capitalist road it's still on today.
This is a country of 1.35 billion people. Under Zedong, it was a basket case. Today, it's the second biggest economy in the world and on track to overtake America before too long. However at the same time, it's still an oppressive, corrupt communist regime that's happy to shoot its own citizens, e.g. the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
This film covers 1979-1989. Someone tells a Maggie Thatcher joke at one point, but strangely there's no mention of John Nathan-Turner's similarly overlapping stint as the producer of Doctor Who. (Hint: the latter wasn't a serious comment.)
Anyway, this history is interesting and important. I can understand a particular kind of audience being so impressed by this that they get something similar from Zhang Ke Jia's film. However what we actually see is an amateur theatre group just living their lives. They're all kind of dreary. Sometimes you get the impression that they might have emotions and sex lives, hidden away in a place Zhang Ke Jia is happy to allude to, but not to visit. Sometimes a man and a woman will have a conversation in long shot that doesn't really take the story anywhere. There are discussions of political correctness and the questioning of people's adherence to communist principles.
So the cast are boring. Guess what? China is too! It's Communist China, with almost no colour and nothing to look at. Everything's grey and either monolithic or falling down. You'll see lots of cold, bleak stonework, with battlements like a medieval castle. Modes of transport include bicycles (three people balanced on one of them) and a horse and cart. I'm sure this is what the country really was like, but that doesn't mean I'm in a hurry to spend 154 minutes watching nothing happen there.
There's also lots of snow, suggesting perhaps that the director was deliberately aiming for exactly this kind of feeling. That's another thing that makes this world look cold and colourless.
Offhand, I think I only saw one scene with any interest for me. I was engaged by the bit where one girl's telling a boy about her impending arranged marriage and getting stonewalled in response. "He's a dentist." "That's nice, a university graduate." It would be possible to get painfully in-depth and intellectual in one's analysis of this film's aesthetic and political content... and indeed there's such an example here:
However my response is simpler. That was like having my teeth pulled. I didn't completely abandon the second half, though. I read a dialogue transcript of the rest, which was a marvel in how little it contained and convinced me that I'd done the right thing in abandoning the film and instead watching Nude Nuns with Big Guns
. That was another disappointment, to be honest, but at least I didn't have trouble staying awake during it.