Thursday, August 06, 2015

Cinema on the Edge: Around That Winter

Years ago, someone long since forgotten said it takes a village to raise a child. If that’s so, there are some drastically unbalanced villages raising kids in China. In the provinces, it is not uncommon to find villages only populated by the very old, the very young, and the very weird due to economic migration. Such is the case with the home town of one big city resident in Wang Xiaozhen’s Around That Winter, which screens as part of Cinema on the Edge, a retrospective tribute to the Beijing Independent Film Festival launching in New York at Anthology Film Archives.

Independent film, meaning that produced without the government’s explicit sanction is flat-out illegal in China. The government also exerts strict control over exhibitors as well. About the only way for maverick filmmakers to show their work was through independent festivals, like the Beijing Independent. It had been harassed since its inception, but the government forcibly shuttered the short-lived yet venerable institution in 2014. Clearly, this was a way to silence political dissent. However, it also stifles films that are experimental or stylistically idiosyncratic. Wang’s naturalistic yet slightly absurdist Winter is a perfect example of the latter.

This should be an eventful homecoming for Xiaozhen, since his significant other, Zhou Qing, would be meeting his parents for the first time, except they are not there. Whatever they do, they need to do it somewhere else to make any sort of money that way. It is not clear how long the couple will wait for them, but it could definitely be considered a lost weekend. They will drink, smoke, bicker, and have make-up sex amid the mean shabbiness of the crumbling village. Their only company will be his senile grandmother; Yongshun, his spectacularly foul-mouthed little nephew; Zige, an even younger and still innocent niece; and Xiaozhen’s childhood friend, who is clearly a little off.

To put it uncharitably, the three ostensive adults basically lay about while the youngsters run wild. Ideologically speaking, Winter should hardly constitute a great threat to the People’s Republic. However, the necessity of peeing in a crumbling masonry ruin of an outhouse while a socially stunted perv peeks through the cracks might not be the propaganda image the regime is trying to project.

Nevertheless, there is something bizarrely anesthetizing about Wang’s severe black-and-white vision. Strictly speaking, not a lot happens, but it is all pretty suggestive of a state of malaise. In truth, the relationship between Xiaozhen and Zhou is one of the most complicated and contentious you will see on screen, while still being functional. As her namesake, Zhou Qing gives a remarkably earthy and spirited performance, zestfully playing off the more reserved helmer, playing a fictionalized (to some extent) analog of himself.

Winter is an interesting film to help open Cinema on the Edge, along with Luo Li’s even colder and more cerebral Emperor Visits the Hell. Wang’s film is not exactly welcoming, but it is accessible, like a Raymond Carver story adapted by Hong Sang-soo. Recommended for those with a taste for the intimate and the off-kilter, Around That Winter screens tomorrow (8/7) and Tuesday (8/11) as part of Cinema on the Edge at Anthology Film Archives.