Sunday, March 25, 2012

ND/NF ’12: Huan Huan

China is a man’s world and becoming ever more so. In addition to making young girls increasingly less common, China’s One Child policy poisons the personal relationships of several working class provincial villagers in Song Chuan’s Huan Huan, which screens during the 2012 New Directors/New Films, jointly presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

Huan Huan has not taken control of her own life. She passively married a habitual gambler and acquiesced to the advances of “Doctor” Wang, a dodgy practitioner of “Chinese and Western medicine” married to Chunfeng, the village’s government enforcer. When their ill-concealed affair becomes public, Chunfeng starts harassing Huan Huan’s family, while Wang starts paying a monthly consideration to her deadbeat husband. Huan Huan’s eventual pregnancy complicates matters tremendously, particularly in light of the One Child policy and Chunfeng’s infertility.

Indeed, given the harsh procreation laws, everyone is interested in Huan Huan’s baby, hoping for a son of course. As a result, what might be a passionate infidelity melodrama in the West becomes a study in cold calculated decisions for Huan Huan’s circle. The frank matter-of-factness with which Song Chuan addresses the One Child policy and the petty corruption of local officials is nothing less than stunning. He also clearly argues contemporary Chinese society is sexually objectifying women, most notably in the low pop culture it imports.

Unfortunately, though Song’s social criticism is undeniably trenchant, his unprofessional cast largely acquit themselves as such. Actually, lead Tian Yuefang is rather convincing in a true to life way as the sullen and self-destructive title character. However, the supporting cast is guilty of frequently awkward line readings and a clumsy fight scene that would not pass muster in most dinner theaters.

In addition, Song follows in the aesthetic tradition of independent Chinese filmmaking initiated by the Digital Generation (or DGenerate) School. As a result, Huan Huan features the long static shots and unhurried ground level naturalism that are hallmarks of the movement, but can be distancing for undisciplined viewers. He displays a strong sense of composition though, vividly conveying the hardscrabble environment of Yunnan.

Ultimately, Huan Huan is more interesting for what portrays than as a fully engaging drama for audiences to submerge themselves into. According to Deadline Hollywood, Song was denied a visa to attend ND/NF, so it worth seeing on those grounds alone. A bold undertaking, but quite a mixed bag cinematically, Huan Huan screens this Tuesday (3/27) at the Walter Reade Theater and Wednesday (3/28) at MoMA.