Year: 2011
Country: China/France/Hongkong
Chinese (different varieties)
Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帥)
Screenplay: Wang Xiaoshuai, Lao Ni
Cinematography: Dong Jinsong
Cast: Liu Weijun, Zhong Guo Liuxing, Zhang Kexuan, Lou Yihao, Yan Ni, Wang Jingchun, Wang Ziyi, Mo Shiyi, Cao Shiping
Runtime: 110 min.
Trailer: on YouTube

Seen at the Closing Night Gala (18/3/2012) of the Pan-Asia Film Festival. The screening was followed by Q&A with lead actor Wang Jingchun.

Set in the latter days of the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命/Wénhuà Dàgémìng, 1966-1976), Wang Han (Liu Weijun) and his friends – Mouse (Zhong Guo Liuxing), Louse (Zhang Kexuan) and Weijun (Lou Yihao) – are eleven-year old boys at the cusp of adulthood. Although some of them – Wang Han’s family, for example – are originally from the city, they now live far out in the countryside in the province of Guizhou, where adults generally earn their living through hard factory work and children must make their own entertainment in forest and fields.

The boys’ every-day reality is ruled by routines meant to instil the pride of a nation in them, the entire whole school enthusiastically yet robotically performing gymnastics exercises in the courtyard every morning and chanting fatherland-praising songs in classrooms. The truth however is that most families barely scrape by, something that Wang Han is only just beginning to realise. When he is selected to lead the gymnastics exercises and told by his teacher to wear a new shirt for that purpose, the request is immediately as well as harshly rejected by his mother (Yan Ni). Although she eventually gives in and spends a year’s worth of coupons to buy fabric and a full night sewing the shirt, it is not only exhilaration that Wang Han feels as a result. The new shirt acquires symbolic significance, becoming Wang Han’s first stepping stone into adulthood as well as conveying the restlessness and confusion of people in the final days of the cultural revolution.

Wang Han, with his mother and younger sister.

Both criticism and praise are due at this point: generally, the director’s handling of symbols lacks subtlety. From the moment the shirt first appears in Wo Shi Yi it is just a little too obvious that it will function as a plot device. The same criticism can also be made about the introduction of Xie Juehong (Mo Shiyi), a schoolmate of Wang Han’s. On the whole, the story is told somewhat unevenly, with misleading strands of narrative direction as, despite what most film synopses about Wo Shi Yi would have you believe, Wang Han’s encounter with the murderer Xie Juequiang, played by Wang Ziyi, is only one small piece in the tale.

Wang Xiaoshuai is therefore not the most skilled storyteller, but he does manage to create impact with individual moments that reveal the contradiction of the particular time period in Chinese history as well as the ambiguity of feelings experienced by average citizens. In one exemplary scene a group of young men waits to attack another, Wang Han and his friends initially watching the confrontation with boyish curiousity. When they see that the fight will be bloody and more dangerous than they are willing to bargain for, they flee and, not much later, are lounging against a wall, their faces empty. It’s a wonderful shot, showing that the boys, having reached the end of the innocence of childhood, do not fully grasp what is happening but can sense that something is wrong, indeed, very, very wrong. Mao may still be alive and the songs of the Cultural Revolutions may still come blaring over loudspeakers, but beneath the surface of national pretense, poverty, deprivation and anger are simmering and waiting to boil over.

Weijun, Wang Han, Mouse and Louse.

The director also successfully relates the lack of power that people have over their own lives as the desire for their own survival and human conscience clash with one another. Behind closed doors even the prison guard laments that the murderer, a fine young man in his eyes, is behind bars, but moments later detachedly and factually declaring that Juequian’s execution order is set to be announced within days, Wang Han’s parents silently agreeing, yet unable – or unwilling – to openly declare any sympathies that might put the family at risk.

Both good and bad can thus be found in Wo Shi Yi. Before concluding, however, there is one other complaint I must raise: Wo Shi Yi felt, particularly towards the end, too familiar, like a story that had already been told. Shots from some other film on the Cultural Revolution came to mind: the same grey, high-walled village buildings, the same streets. And a déjà-vu with the final scene: although I cannot remember the title of that other film, it equally ended with execution orders of criminals and enemies of the fatherland being announced over the loudspeakers of a vehicle, the only difference being that in one film the vehicle is seen, in the other (Wo Shi Yi) it is only heard nearby. Of course, vehicles announcing execution orders over loudspeakers must have been a common feature of the time and arguably make this the only way to present such a scene. And yet: if we want a film that is not simply one of many, but one that elevates itself above the fray by means of its story as well as cinematography, I will have to disagree and clamour for the originality that is missing here.

Overall verdict: Lacking more refined skills in storytelling, Wang Xiaoshuai does not quite manage to convince as a director but offers some moments of insight in Wo Shi Yi.

Rating: 6.5/10 

Bonus Bits:

  • The screening included a Q&A with actor Wang Jingchun, who plays Wang Han’s father. Unfortunately the Q&A was disappointing, not to say highly frustrating. The reason for this was the interpreter: though knowledgeable and fluent in both Chinese and English, he had little understanding of what interpretation entails, adding commentary in a manner that made it impossible to tell whether he was talking about the actor’s or his own experiences during the cultural revolution, shortening answers and, most annoyingly, translating neither the final question asked (in Chinese) nor the actor’s response, instead saying “That’s a great way to conclude the discussion”! The interpreter also seemed uncomfortable translating some of the more frank responses, using euphemisms to explain the significance of the boys hanging on the schoolyard bars in the opening scene: a preteen way to speed up physical maturation processes and getting their first erection. I hope Asia House makes an effort to hire a professionally trained interpreter in the 2013 Pan-Asia Film Festival.
  • Some interesting bits did come out of the Q&A: As was pointed out by a Chinese-speaking audience member, the film uses different varieties of Chinese, actor Wang Jingchun explaining that the director tried to reflect the reality of the time, i.e. the different ways of speaking by people that moved from the city to the countryside, what was spoken inside the home, and what outside (and so forth).
  • Superb acting from the children especially – although the Q&A revelation that the child actors had no knowledge nor interest in the Cultural Revolution but merely acted in response to instructions given was a bit of a let-down.
  • Wang Han’s family is, as I mentioned, originally from the city, but has involuntarily come to live in the country, most likely as part of the so-called Down to the Countryside Movement (上山下乡运动).

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