This marks the third film directed by Jiang Wen that we’ve watched so far. I believe that this actually constitutes most of his output as he is much more prolific as an actor than as a director. For the two previous films I’d watched, his style struck me as being very distinctive and unique for a Chinese director but I can’t say that I really liked them. This one is the exception. There’s still plenty here that I don’t understand but the experience of watching it is absolutely delightful.
There are four stories in here, connected only very tangentially. The first one takes place in a rural area about a son who has his hands full managing the crazy antics of his mother. She climbs trees and shouts phrases that don’t seem to make any sense, She digs a huge hole for no apparent reason and is somehow able to float on an earthen raft on the river, while her son runs around to ensure that she is safe. The next story takes place in a university and is about Liang, a teacher who is for some reason irresistible to women, especially the school’s doctor Lin. During a festival showing classic Chinese films, Liang ends up being accused of molesting some people and is chased down and beaten up. The last two stories link the events together. Tang, a friend of Liang from the university, is sent to the countryside to be reformed under the supervision of the son of the crazy mother in the first story. He enjoys his time hunting with the local children but neglects his wife. The last is chronologically the earliest and recounts how the mad mother and Tang’s wife once met and tells of the mother’s relationship with a mysterious Russian and how she had a son out of this liaison.
As always, stories that involve crazy people are hard to understand and Jiang deliberately obfuscates things even more. There is simply no way to know the mad mother’s motivations until you get to the final story. Even when I generally understand the sequence of events in the second story I still can’t work out the point of it. No doubt there is a cultural gap involved here and the director is making references that neither my wife nor myself are getting. I’m suspicious that some elements simply have no explanation, such as the bit about the mother digging holes and finding rocks at the bottom of the tree.
Even if I can’t make everything fit together perfectly in my head, I still found myself quite engrossed and entertained by this film. The characters are great and I loved the creativity in many of the scenes. One of my favorite bits has the girls working in a bakery reimagined as a can-can chorus line. The garish colors and eccentric music choices enhance the sense of wackiness. I thought Jiang appearing himself in the film felt self-indulgent but the unusual casting choices of people like Joan Chen and Anthony Wong were brilliant. Even Jaycee Chan sort of works as the perennially clueless son who is constantly chasing his mother. The whole film reminds me very much of the work of Wes Anderson. I think this entry belongs more firmly than any of the others films by Jiang I’ve seen in the genre of magical realism, what with the seemingly talking birds, the tiny floating island and how Liang drives women crazy merely by spouting Cantonese obscenities.
While I generally enjoy Anderson’s films a fair bit, I don’t think of myself as much of a fan because I’m not convinced that there is a substantial emotional core underneath the stylized wackiness. I feel pretty much the same way about The Sun Also Rises. I found it great fun and I admire it as an exercise in creativity but unless I missed a great deal in translation, I don’t believe that Jiang is even trying to say anything of substance here. From what I understand, this is pretty much par for the course for this director’s body of work. This is a delightful film and makes for wonderful entertainment but it’s probably not one for the ages.