Sunday, March 14, 2010

Asia Society: Perfect Life

Now connected by a modern rail link, traveling between Hong Kong and the Chinese city of Shenzhen is no big deal. Social mobility though, is far more elusive for two struggling Chinese women. One is real, while the other is fictional, but they both lead similar lives that will eventually bring them to the same corner of Shenzhen in Emily Tang’s Perfect Life, co-produced by Jia Zhangke, which screens this Friday at the Asia Society as part of its ongoing series of independent Chinese films.

Li’s mother pulled her out of school to help support her brother’s studies. Shortly thereafter, she abandoned her family. Dutifully, Li has taken care of her brother, but it is becoming increasingly clear their mother picked the wrong scholar in the family. Working as a maid in a hotel, Li meets a frequent guest obviously involved in something fishy. Though she rebuffs his advances, she agrees to shuttle a contraband painting to Shenzhen, where he promises to establish her in a new life. It is there Li has a brief encounter with Jenny.

Jenny Tse has not been any happier in go-go Hong Kong than Li has been in her dreary northern industrial town. Lured by the hope of profitable employment, Tse married the wrong man. Now she is battling depression and working crummy jobs while embroiled in various legal battles with her ex.

Life’s primary focus falls on Li’s story, with Tse’s appearances coming in relatively brief documentary interludes. Of course, the parallels between the two characters are clear. Neither has any real prospects to speak of, nor do they have any meaningful familial support.

Watching films like Life and those directed by co-producer Jia can be an ironic experience. Often they critique contemporary Communist China and its crony Capitalism with similar cinematic language used to decry western Capitalism by American and European filmmakers. Indeed, in Life Tang pointedly presents a modern China rife with class-based inequity and rampant sexism. Welcome to the new China everybody.

Carrying the bulk of the film on her shoulders, Yao Qianyu is a quietly riveting screen presence. Though still an attractive woman, we can see what a toll life has already taken on her. Audiences definitely feel for her, particularly considering how many of her woes are attributable to simply being a woman born in an economically depressed region.

Independent Chinese films like Life give one the impression China has perversely combined the worst aspects of Communism and Capitalism. Yet more than mere social criticism, Life is also heartrending drama, presented by Tang with unsparing intimacy. Highly recommended (if also somewhat demanding of viewers) it screens at the Asia Society on Manhattan’s elegant Park Avenue this coming Friday (3/19).