Wednesday, March 16, 2022

First Look ’22: A New Old Play

Qiu Fu specializes in playing the clown in Sichuan Opera. He is definitely a sad clown, having endured hardship and tragedy during the Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution, but he trudges on stoically—until now. Having just recently died, Qiu looks back on his life while he makes the trek to the afterlife in Qiu Jiongjiong’s A New Old Play, which screens at MOMI during this year’s First Look.

Much to his surprise, Qiu has just suffered a fatal accident, as the demons sent to escort him to the netherworld explain. Like taxes, there is no getting out of it, so he naturally takes stock of his recently completed life during his journey. He grows even more nostalgic when he starts to meet people from his past on the way. Periodically, Crooky, the troupe’s hunchbacked laborer makes an unsettling sudden appearance, like Torgo in
Manos: The Hands of Fate (except this is a good film).

Qiu first found himself in a theater company after he was abandoned by his mother. For years, he yearned for her to at least return for a visit, but to no avail. Eventually, he became one of the players in the New-New Troupe, which was sponsored by Pocky, a well-connected Nationalist officer. Obviously, they all must pivot quickly when the Communists take control of the Mainland. Most of the troupe manages to survive by parroting the right lines. Qiu and his formerly-widowed wife (whom he more or less inherited as a member of the company) even become reasonably popular and prestigious again. Then the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward hits.

New Old Play
is epic tale of 20th Century China that is told in a boldly idiosyncratic style, maximizing Qiu’s DIY budget constraints. It is also a very personal story for Qiu, drawing on his family’s own theatrical history and featuring his father Qiu Zhimin as Pocky, the patron officer. His depiction of the Nationalists is hardly flattering, but the real horrors come under Communism. In fact, there is a scene of Qiu Fu and his wife trying to harvest maggots from “stolen” human excrement that is so shocking, yet so bleakly absurd, it will haunt your days forever.

Qiu Jiongjiong gives the film such a fanciful stylized look, one might expect the cast to get overwhelmed by the visuals. Yet, Yi Sicheng is a deeply compelling as Qiu Fu. In many ways, he is a flawed, petty person, but he is also deeply scarred by his childhood abandonment issues. Yi really manages to convey all that multifaceted complication. Likewise, Qiu Zhimin is convincing and charismatic as the gruff Pocky.

At more-or-less three hours,
New Old Play demands a commitment, but it pays regular dividends through its weird blend of the fantastical spirit realm and some very real historical tragedy. Filmmaker Qiu channels the aesthetics of Sichuan Opera, as well as the visuals of silent cinema and ink-wash painting. Yet, once you acclimate to what he and cinematographer Robbin Feng are doing, it starts to fit the narrative and feel appropriate. Somehow it works. Highly recommended for fans of Chinese opera and epic family sagas, A New Old Play screens this Friday (3/18) as part of First Look 2022.