(versão em português aqui)
2019 was not exactly a good year for Chinese cinema. Amid the celebrations of the communist revolution’s 70th anniversary, the CCP considerably hardened its already unfriendly rules of censorship. In February, two films, Derek Tsang’s Better Days and Zhang Yimou’s One Second, were pulled out of the Berlin Festival competition for “technical” reasons (like most authoritarian governments the Chinese are very transparent when they want to show strength). The tone has been maintained throughout the year and the impression of a narrowing of content is visible going way beyond just stopping direct government criticism. If film talent wants its films to be released in the Chinese market, they need to be increasingly careful about what they film and also what they say in public. For example, one can notice the radical different stances among Hong Kong artists on local political protests in 2014 and 2019. Five years ago, there was a constant presence of local artists despite rumors of possible government retaliations (actor Anthony Wong has been gray-listed since it for his role in them). Despite ideological similarities and the same repercussions about violent police repression, the presence of famous people is no longer common, and while few voices (Jackie Chan, Wong Jing) have positioned themselves as pro-government at the time, there has been now no lack of sympathy for the local police and the CCP in recent months (during publicity for his new blockbuster Ip Man 4, Donnie Yen was quick to point he stand with the government to get just one recent case). While as the critic Shelly Kraicer well pointed out filmmakers sympathetic with protestors can only do so by the way of remaining silent.
Under this context, it is good to take a look at two films from Hong Kong-based filmmakers targeting Mainland China that were recent released: the aforementioned Better Days and Chasing Dream, Johhnie To’s latest feature film, and the ways in which they deal with such pressures. After Berlin, Tsang’s film commercial release was postponed multiple times until finally getting out with cuts to soften its main scene and a new prologue and epilogue with a clear function of pleasing the authorities. To had no problems with censorship (at least that we know of), but it is worth mentioning that as soon as the government confirmed Chasing Dream’s “release permit”, the filmmaker announced that he was pulling out of jury duty on this year’s Golden Horse Award, a very traditional Taiwanese award that cover the whole of Chinese cinema, claiming personal reasons. In 2019, for the first time in 25 years no film from Mainland China has signed up for the Golden Horse and the few Hong Kong films submitted were independent productions without high expectations on the Chinese market. In a country where capital and government radically go together, censorship can take many forms. Chasing Dream is To’s most invisible movie in the West in about two decades, and if the Western cinephilia usual lack of interest in his divertissements outside the action film genre might play a part on that, the invisibility also has a lot to do with how Chasing Dream strives to adapt itself to an even more mainstream Chinese Cinema logic.
Derek Tsang first got big attention three years ago with Soulmate, one of my favorite Chinese movies of the decade. A reimagination of Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story in which the filmmaker’s father Eric Tsang had played a key supporting role (Chan served as producer) , with the heterosexual couple replaced by two young women whose emotional ties are tested over a decade-long Chinese historical panorama. Better Days is another movie about Chinese youth. It’s a film dealing with bullying in Chinese schools, but also about the pressures that Chinese youngsters experience during the local entrance exam period, the idea that even in a supposedly communist society, the next decades of those young people will be decided by the answers to some exam questions and the cruelty involved in that. Better Days and Chasing Dream have in common being movies about how the logic of success takes over the whole of Chinese society and Tsang’s film is a pretty bitter look at it.
Most of Better Days is devoted to a romance between the main character (Zhou Dongyu, as great here as she was in Soulmate) and the young delinquent (Jackson Yee) who takes on the role of her protector after she becomes a bullying target at school.It is a film about whether or not one is included in Chinese society, about abandonment in a police state. There is an entire social structure around the young characters, but it is one much more effective at watching than protecting them. Tsang is very adept at turning teenage melodrama into a political weapon; all the heavy emotional feelings and alienation of its young characters becomes an extension of an idea of abandonment. A society that is great at policing, but terrible at caring. It is no surprise that Chinese government has been so bothered about it.
The final credits highlight new government policies on bullying (the action is carefully placed in recent past), and the framing contemporary scenes reinforce the idea that the state’s hand successful reeducates. The new scenes are so propagandistic that only the most literal-minded of audience members could take them seriously, the target audience should remember the melodramatic image of the two police vans going in opposite directions and not the “and everything was fine later” epilogue. Much of Western criticism around the film has focused on discussing it as a movie about bullying which it indeed is, but it is useful to notice that if Better Days is a strong political work, it is precisely because it positions the schoolyard as a symptom of a larger malaise. as its criticism is far more systemic than that. Tsang knows that through a close-up of Zhou Dongyu emoting, it is possible to smuggle a lot.
While in Chasing Dream, what first impresses is how everything about its world sounds false. It is another romance between very different characters, he is a popular MMA fighter and she an aspiring singer who are bring together through their relationship with a loan shark. It’s a musical melodrama, kind of like a reality show society’s Jacques Demy film. It is nonetheless an interesting counterpoint to To’s previous musical, Office (2015), which was a much more respectable film covering a worthier subject (the power games inside a large company), but whose use of theatrical space is equally artificial sometimes suggesting an imprisonment of its characters by their desires.
What sets Chasing Dream apart is how it blends in with its populist spirit and the way it deals with this world of social mobility through popularity contest. Like many Johnnie To’s films, Chasing Dream was co-written by Wai Ka-fai and the notions of irony and absurdity of Wai’s more personal work are more present here than in any of their recent collaborations. The reality show scenes in particular allow Wai’s ironic imagination to dominate. Wai and To seem dedicated to this idea of a world of fakery and that is especially perverse when considering the way Chasing Dream often references Thow Down, one of To’s most personal and offbeat films. At middle point, when the couple has its inevitable temporary separation, he promises to put her CD in all of his future restaurant chain units, and she enforces that he had to use the original CDs and not the pirated ones, a whole view about real and false at a consumerist obsessed society in a quick exchange. Wai’s sense of irony is a much needed counteract given a material that buys into Chinese social climbing ideology much more than any other movie To and his Milkyway crew had previously been involved. There is no room here for the bitter social observations of the two Don’t Go Breaking My Heart movies, for example. If the film suggests a China in which the boundaries between the television image and what it sells and the Chinese society as a whole had become very blurred, it also seems very close to capitulate to it. Similarly, the MMA plot has a villainous American fighter who reinforces the worst xenophobic tendencies with which Chinese action cinema has been presenting its nationalist notions in recent years. Nothing exactly new to Chinese mainstream film, but the way consumerism and nationalism are articulated here is unheard of in To’s previous work. Capital censorship is sometimes crueler and difficult to overcome than government censorship.
Chasing Dream works mostly as a catalogue for To’s staging skills, that it is also very aware that he those skills often work in a vacuum is as much criticism as it is allowed to come up with.The film is quite adept at creating this television dreamscape in which nothing seems credible and countering it with main relationship’s genuine feelings as if To had given himself the personal challenge of trying to find some truth in the midst of so much fakery. Melodrama contains a very strong dose of masochism as if only personal pain could allow a real feeling in the moments that were not mediated by television. Chasing Dream scenes follow a musical number logic regardless of whether they are accompanied by actual music, semi-independent sequences in which the theatricality of the staging meets the plotting absurdities and in those moments the film becomes stronger. A triumph for stylist Johnnie To if not necessarily for auteur Johnnie To.
What is certain when seeing not only these two films but others released in China this year is that it has become increasing difficult for filmmakers to communicate anything minimally out of official discourse accepted in the country without depending on careful smuggling or accepting the risks of very incoherent texts.