Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beijing Flickers

"Despair can be so amazing sometimes," muses San Bao, the hero of Zhang Yuan's stunning new film, Beijing Flickers. He's broke. He's lost his girlfriend, his dog and his apartment. But it's also late at night, he's drunk and roaming the empty streets with his friends, and the first snowfall of the year is coming down. This accumulation of details, the pressure and pleasures of the city, is a kind of euphoria, which will soon lead him to his second half-assed suicide attempt of the movie, in the same way a more stable person might burst into song or dance down the street.

Newly rich, ever changing Beijing is the backdrop for many movies nowadays, but this is the that rare film in which it actually becomes a character.

"Beware of artists," says the fake McCarthy-era poster currently making its mistaken rounds as an internet meme, "they mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous." Though this quote is apparently a paraphrase from a letter by King Leopold of Belgium, it somehow applies to the characters in Beijing Flickers. In recent years we've seen plenty of films about Beijing's poor, and a spate of romcoms about its young and fabulous, but Zhang's characters are all artists of a sort, and so they cross class borders. Mostly poor themselves, they at least brush against the upper class world and become aware of what they can't have (one of them, a valet parking attendant, spends his days behind the wheels of luxury cars he could never hope to own). They come across as kids with the souls of poets, and that's what makes them tragic.

San Bao narrates the film in voice-over, but his character is mostly mute. But unlike the unexplained silent protagonists in, say, the films of Kim Ki-duk, he's silent for a reason: in a fit of drunken despair he's fucked up his mouth by chewing broken glass. So for much of the film he's something of a flaneur, wandering and observing the city. Though less psychotic than Travis Bickle, and older if not wiser than the Jim Carroll of The Basketball Diaries, he thinks about Beijing as if it's a living entity, sometimes a playground, sometimes a monster he has to wrestle with, much in the same way that those two characters wrestle with New York.

It's a perspective that could never emerge from the bubble of trendy bars and expensive boutiques that constitute the Beijing of romcoms like Love in the Buff, nor from the lower class milieu of many a Chinese realist film, in which the characters can rarely think beyond the necessities of keeping afloat. so Zhang's vision of Beijing is something new. The city lives as intensely as his flawed heroes.

Since 1993's Beijing Bastards, Zhang has been a specialist in depicting both marginalized characters and extreme intensities of emotional conflict. I still remember his 2002 film I Love You, and its couple's wild swings between mad passion and lacerating fights. Like many directors of his generation, his perspective was deeply informed by Tiananmen Square, and many years later his allegiance remains with China's outcasts and rebels. Beijing Flickers adds something new, though. Nearing 50, Zhang can look on his young, often misguided characters with the wisdom of age, much like his Sixth Generation colleague Le You did to devastating effect in Summer Palace. We watch these kids fuck up with a lump in our throats. We know things can change for them, but they can't imagine it. And we're left wondering at the end just what the city will turn them into.

Beijing Flickers will receive its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival next month.

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