Monday, March 08, 2010

Asia Society: Walking on the Wild Side

Yes, there are Chinese indie road movies, but those cinematic byways tend to make for difficult traveling. Of course, being on the run from the law does not help. Three fugitive juvenile delinquents give idleness an especially bad name in writer-director Han Jie’s Walking on the Wild Side, one two films produced by Jia Zhangke that screens during the Asia Society’s current series of independent Chinese films.

In the morally ambiguous climate of Walking, boredom leads directly to tragedy. Three thuggish young men lay about their small mining town in China’s northern Shanxi province, enjoying aimless hedonism. Unfortunately, when Liu Liu, their ostensive leader, impulsively rapes a local girl it sets off a tragic cycle of vengeance. Suddenly facing the threat of prosecution, Liu Liu and his gang head north towards Mongolia, sinning and carousing as best they can along the way.

Of course, such reckless behavior is not sustainable. Like the self-destructive protagonist of Godard’s Breathless, it is clear they are rushing towards a bad end. The only question is whether they will all go down together or if either of Liu Liu’s running mates will bail out before it is too late.

Society, as reflected in Walking, is thoroughly lawless at all levels, from the causeless rebels on the lam to the mining company whose negligence cost the lives of many employees. Tradition and family structures seem to have largely lost their power of social control, leaving nothing in their place to hold people together. Han holds a mirror up to nature and finds it decidedly brutish and nihilistic. Indeed, there is a violent episode (in a school no less) that is really quite disturbing. Yet, it does not faze the loutish trio at all, which is the whole point of the film.

Walking is an excellent picture, but it makes few concessions to popular audiences. Drearily naturalistic, cinematographer presents a grim, washed out vision of contemporary Shanxi. Still, unlike many recent Chinese films marked by a languid impressionism, it has a strong narrative drive, with a dramatic story arc and clearly delineated plot points. Walking might be art cinema, but it is easy to follow.

Like Jia’s films as a director, Walking has a Cinema Vérité-like realism, with its convincing cast submerging themselves into the picture. Nobody really stands out because everyone seems so realistic. Dark and uncompromising, it is definitely a compelling critique of contemporary Chinese society. It screens at the Asia Society this coming Thursday (3/11) as part of the two month China’s Past, Present, Future on Film series.