Saturday, June 25, 2011

ContemporAsian: The High Life

It might be unorthodox, subversive even, but the underground “trash” poetry one Chinese prison has his inmates read aloud surely beats the little red books of old. They agree quite enthusiastically, mostly. It is still hard living, both inside and out, for regular citizens excluded from China’s economic boom times in Zhao Dayong’s High Life, which screens this weekend as part of MoMA’s ContemporAsian film series.

Perhaps new arrivals to Guangzhou ought to know better than to give money to a job placement consultant whose office is a card table on the street. Sadly, desperation delivers a fairly regular stream of suckers willing to pay for Jian Ming’s supposed services. Departing from procedure, he actually finds a job for Xiao Ya at a dodgy beauty parlor. Yes, she is young and cute, but his assistance comes at a steep price. Xiao Ya’s misfortune will temporarily jar Jian Ming out of his moral lethargy, indirectly leading him to prison, where High spins off in a completely different direction.

Dian Qiu is a prison turnkey, a cog in the state machinery of oppression. Unlikely enough, he is also a trash poet, who composes sexually and politically charged verse suitable for a hardcore hipster slam. The prisoners seem to enjoy reciting his naughty lines aloud (including a thinly veiled reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre) while they work. Of course, it is not like they have much of a choice. Still, he seems to have a genuine rapport with the women inmates, which might even extend to romance with number 58. Unfortunately, tenderness never lasts long in such a brutal environment.

The protest poet-prison guard might sound like it could only happen in New York, but Dian Qiu is actually played by Shen Shaoqiu, a real life copper who moonlights as an underground poet. He is also a remarkably assured and natural actor. His scenes with the wonderfully expressive Diao Lei as 58 are touching in a realistically mature and restrained way. Indeed, their presence and chemistry makes High’s second half far stronger than Jian Ming’s now familiar story of street hustler naturalism. Qui Hong is not particularly engaging as the con man either, but Wang Teng is rather effective and affecting as Xiao Ya.

Stylistically, High follows right in line with the work of China’s so-called “Digital Generation” of independent filmmakers, but cinematographer Xue Gang has a good eye for the teeming Guangzhou backdrop, rendering it like a blighted Brazilian favela. While the tenuously connected narrative halves might sound gimmicky, the film frankly gets a shot in the arm from the shift. A challenging film well worth sticking out the slow start, High screens again today (6/25) and tomorrow (6/26) at MoMA.