Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Asia Society: Betelnut

Calling them rebels without causes would be overstating matters. They are really just causeless. Two rootless, antisocial youths give little thought to the future as the drift through life in Yang Heng’s Betelnut, which screens this Friday as part of the Asia Society’s ongoing retrospective of contemporary independent Chinese cinema.

There is not much difference between two young men living together outside the law, along the Hunan riverbank. When not aimlessly riding through the countryside on presumably stolen motorbikes, they haunt internet cafes and perpetrate petty crimes. They also both have a taste for the titular stimulant and neither is particularly keen on getting jobs or making plans. They just drift.

Still, they are young, extremely unattached males, so it is hardly surprising when they start getting ideas about two local girls. The older boy is relatively straight forward in his pursuit, but his less mature running mate carries out vaguely disconcerting schemes to come into contact with the apparently unobtainable object of his affections. At least he is starting to make plans.

The characters that inhabit Betelnut, especially its protagonists, are net savvy, chatting with strangers across the country. Yet it is nearly impossible for them to communicate face-to-face. They just do not have anything to say.

Yang is definitely a director who believes in holding a good shot. Indeed, many of his tableaus are quite striking. While he patiently allows scenes to develop in their own good time, Yang often allows Betelnut to slow to a languorous pace, even compared to the impressionistic films of Jia Zhangke and his contemporaries of the so-called “Sixth Generation.” Yet, despite the film’s stillness, the promise of heat induced violence always feels palpable.

In Betelnut, Yang reflects a somewhat different perspective of China. Rather than grimly bemoaning globalization or the rise of statist capitalism, it presents a generation defined by its own nihilism and indolence, while showing little concern for the underlying causes.

Except for the occasional bystander, nobody in Betelnut could be past their very early twenties. Though young, the cast is uniformly natural and unaffected, each absolutely looking and acting as if they were plucked from Hunan riverbanks.

The uncompromisingly naturalistic Betelnut is one of the more demanding films of the Asia Society’s current independent Chinese film series. However, almost every frame is obviously painstakingly crafted by a keen visual stylist. Definitely a film for connoisseurs, it screens this Friday (3/26) at the Asia Society.