Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cinema on the Edge: Cut Out the Eyes

He is part ancient troubadour and part Andrew Dice Clay. Er Housheng is a rambling performer of Er Ren Tai “folk opera,” who has a something of a folk following in Inner Mongolia. The instrumentation is different, but American audiences well steeped in rap music should be able to relate to the sexually charged one-upping duets the blind Er performs with his ambiguous partner. Xu Fong follows Er through the unhomogenized, rough-and-tumble Northern Chinese province in Cut Out the Eyes, which screens as part of Cinema on the Edge, the retrospective tribute to the Beijing Independent Film Festival.

Before he was blinded, Er Housheng was apparently quite the ladies’ man. There was indeed a cause-and-effect relationship between these two states of being, as the title suggests and Er himself explains in a no-holds-barred closing performance. He is still a dirty old man, who excels at improvising lyrics so suggestive they really do not qualify as double entendre. He also talks pretty explicitly to his various lovers. His relationships are rather complex, but informal. That definitely includes the arrangements with his current duet partner, Liu Lanlan.

If Er Housheng were not such a salty old dog, one might be tempted to describe him as an inspirational figure. However, Er does not want anyone’s sympathy and he hardly sees himself as a role model. He is an unrepentant scoundrel and he is not done yet. One could probably make an epic Flashman-like film out of his exploits, but Xu opts for an intimate approach. Logically, it is through his revealing lyrics that we can best get to know the earthy raconteur.

Seriously, this is not a film for children or the easily offended. Er could go toe-to-toe with 2 Live Crew. Yet, his life of passion and lawlessness seems like a throwback to the Wild West. Some of his makeshift performance stages even have a medicine show vibe. Needless to say, Er might not be the most reliable of narrators, but the most significant parts of his story are obviously true.

Accompanied by the dizi flute, hammered yangqin, and sometimes the trumpet like suona, Er Ren Tai clearly privileges lyrical interpretation and extemporization over instrumental virtuosity, which is unfortunate for some of the very talented musicians who get brief solo spotlights in Eyes. World music listeners should nonetheless find plenty to enjoy, but Xu’s doc is more of a character study—and Er is quite the character.

It is hard to believe an itinerant musician and self-styled reprobate like Er can still exist in modern China. The fact that he does is strangely reassuring. It is a big country that remains highly diverse, despite the Party’s long campaign to wash away cultural differences. Xu documents the flinty edge and idiosyncrasies of Er and his Er Ren Tai colleagues with appropriate irony and sensitivity. Recommended for adventurous patrons of world music and music documentaries, Cut Out the Eyes screens this Tuesday (8/18) at the Maysles Documentary Center, as part of Cinema on the Edge.