Thursday, July 04, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Winter After Winter

China suffered terribly during the Japanese occupation. They go out of their way to remind the world of that fact with every other film they officially release. Apparently, the nation prefers to identify itself as a group of pitiful victims rather than as a global superpower. A dysfunctional family serves as the latest example. They will be duly miserable during the waning days of the war in Xing Jian’s Winter After Winter, which screens as a selection of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Elderly Lao Si will soon turn his grown sons over to the local Japanese commander to [involuntarily] labor in their lumber camp, but he is only incidentally concerned with their fate. Instead, he has arranged a hasty divorce for his eldest impotent son, so one of his two younger brothers can impregnate his now ex-wife, Kun, thereby continuing Lao’s bloodline. Unfortunately, the middle sibling is too disgusted by it all, so he runs off to join the resistance, whereas the dim-witted youngest, simply isn’t up to the task.

Kun rather stoically accepts this unseemly circus, not that anyone is asking her opinion. Her silence speaks volumes. Likewise, Lao Si’s motor-mouth can be cringey to listen to. Frankly, his obsession with blood (well beyond that of the problematic but infinitely more sympathetic characters in Steinbeck’s Burning Bright) approaches outright creepiness. Yet, Xing, previously an accomplished painter, maintains a stately slow pace.

Winter eventually reaches a profoundly ironic payoff, but many viewers will be hard-pressed to see it that way. In fact, Xing maintains such a harshly realistic, matter-of-fact tone, you could almost miss the significant revelations he drops late in the game. This is definitely austere cinema, but the visual artistry of Guo Daming’s striking (mostly) black-and-white cinematography is just as apparent, frame after frame.

As Kun, Yan Bingyan is a haunting presence, thanks to her demoralized and downtrodden body language. However, it is Gao Qiang who really dominates the film as the desperately deceitful Lao Si, debasing himself over small stakes, much like a William H. Macey character in a Coen Brothers film.

Xing’s film has too many bitterly dark plot-points to truly be classified as “slow cinema,” but it is still “slow-ish.” His long takes are impressively composed, but they demand the viewer’s close attention. Interestingly, he also somewhat humanizes the Japanese commander, which definitely distinguishes Winter from the field. Only recommended for hardcore cineastes who will respect its integrity, Winter After Winter screens tomorrow (7/5), during the 2019 NYAFF.