Cops and rockers came together to represent modern Chinese cinema at this year's Shanghai International Film Festival.
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26 Jun 2012 - 11:52 AM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 6:30 PM

SHANGHAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: In my first post I highlighted some of the changes that have overtaken the Chinese mainland film industry over the past decade—and specifically, its growing independence, both from both the Western festival circuit, and from foreign box-office returns. In this one, I'd like to discuss a few of the Chinese films which screened at this year's Shanghai International Film Festival. With the caveat, of course, that can, by necessity, be only a very partial view.

Originally called Detective Hunter Zhang, and based upon a 1980s mainland TV series of the same name, Gao Qunshu's police procedural screened in Competition under its new title, Beijing Blues. Yet while it might seem generic, the new name is actually more apt: the city is, in fact, the single most important character here—a sprawling, chaotic metropolis whose only constant is corruption. Through it we follow our hero, a decent, asthmatic, diabetic cop (played by author and blogger Zhang Lixian—like all the cast, a non-professional actor) as he doggedly grinds out one case after another.

Nothing as glamourous as murder, though: Zhang's field is strictly petty crime—pickpockets, con-artists, scammers of every stripe. Shot in a semi-documentary style (and Wu Di's cinematography captures the gritty, wintery texture of the northern capital to perfection), the film communicates a sense of overwhelming futility—how, given the scale of the city, and the number of crooks in it, can even the most tenacious cop ever hope to make a difference?—as well as street-level thrills: one sequence, of a truck driver being almost beaten to death by a mob after he's run over a little girl—filmed entirely from within a parked police car while, in the background, fireworks explode in the night sky—is one of the most assured pieces of direction of the year, somehow reminiscent of the 'Jessie's Girl' sequence from Boogie Nights.

Huo Jianqi's Falling Flowers was very different: a biopic in a distinctly classical style, the story of left-wing female novelist Xiao Hong (1911-1942), whose life appeared to be a ceaseless string of ordeals: facing not only institutional sexism from the publishing establishment, but dire poverty, unsupportive fiancés, and unwanted pregnancies. As if this weren't enough, there was also World War II, and the Japanese invasion, which saw her relocate to Hong Kong, where, after 122 very long minutes, she eventually sickened, wept, and died.

The pacing was slow and the telling piecemeal—the script certainly conveyed her suffering, but weirdly, never dwelt on her triumphs, writing such masterpieces as The Field of Life and Death, or Tales of the Hulan River. As Xiao, Song Jia was decent, though too often the script veered toward melodrama. But the real star of the show was Shi Luan's burnished cinematography, which made even the most abject poverty seem like a Vogue shoot.

Slightly better was Sweet Eighteen, a coming-of-age drama, and the debut feature from female writer-director He Wenchao. In Xiangjiang, a young girl lives with her mother, a failed actress and a drunk, and marvels at the older woman's self-abnegating taste in men, until she falls for somebody completely unsuitable—another girl—and begins to feel the same, irrational ache.

Starring some extraordinarily beautiful young people, and ravishingly shot, yet again (if nothing else, this year's festival demonstrated the proficiency of Chinese DOPs), the film became a kind of anguished little tone poem about sexual confusion and bad choices; and despite some clunky plot-mechanics in its final act, and a self-regarding performance from the older woman, it did its job efficiently, if not exceptionally; the audience—mostly young, almost entirely women—ate it up.

And then, in another register altogether, there was Peng Lei's Follow Follow, a gritty, fascinating look at Beijing's punk scene that followed its motley assortment of leather-jacketed drop-outs (all real-life musicians and artists) through the capital's northern districts, in search of the kind of transcendence embodied deceased Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, this film's presiding spirit (literally: he appears—sort of—as a ghost at one point).

Somewhere in there was a doomed romance, but most of it was about the music: the rush and adrenaline of performance, the cramped, squalid flats, the crappy venues... And also, about feelings of cultural inferiority, since the main character bitterly resents being Chinese, a perennial outsider to the Western culture he idolises. All in all, it felt completely authentic (unsurprisingly, Lee is himself a frontman, of the band New Pants); and also, unlike any vision of the Chinese mainland previously served up to viewers, either here or abroad.