March 5th, 2007
A film by Wang Xiaoshuai, director of the superior Beijing Bicycle. In Mandarin with English subtitles.
This movie tells the story of Er Di (”Second Younger Brother”), a man who left China as a stowaway and lived in the United States for a time. There he fathered a child with his employer’s daughter. Deported for his indiscretion, now he drags himself around his Chinese coastal village in a state of permanent depression.
Er Di spends most of the movie smoking and gazing moodily into the distance. Not even his opera-singer girlfriend can cheer him up.
Coincidentally, the relatives of the child live in the same Chinese village as Er Di. When the boy arrives for a visit they refuse to let Er Di see him, but he kidnaps the kid and takes him to the seashore. This makes Er Di happy for a bit.
After the visit, Er Di goes back to smoking and staring. Ordered by a local functionary to lead a meeting of young men who might be tempted to leave as stowaways, in order to tell them that life abroad isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, he only sits in silence while they shout out their questions.
When Er Di suddenly takes to pumping himself up with martial arts exercises, we know something’s up. This is, after all, a Chinese film.
In the end Er Di and his girlfriend are on the run again.
So why watch it?
Although there is much about this film that isn’t good, especially Er Di’s tiresome smoking and staring, it’s more enjoyable than I’m making it sound.
I like seeing strange places like this Chinese coastal village, and I like seeing the people who live there. I even like seeing a poor Chinese family eating dinner. I like to see what they’re eating, how it’s served, how they use their chopsticks - when they’re at home, not at a restaurant on Somerset. I like seeing the sullen young men drinking beer at a seaside café and the opera singer doing tricks on the beach.
Er Di and his family and friends are a disaffected, lethargic bunch, which I take as a criticism of life in modern China, although the critique isn’t sharp or specific enough for me to really get it. Maybe it resonates more for Chinese people.
I do recommend this film, if only for the colour and strangeness of the world it describes. But I think Beijing Bicycle is a better movie.