Li Hongqi, 2010
Repetition and longueur characterised a number of very strong (some great) films in this year’s festival, few more so than painter, poet, and novelist Li Hongqi’s absurdist satire, WINTER VACATION.
Set in a grim locale in the northern provinces of China (in a town defined by the look of socialist miserabilism) over the final days of the winter school break, the film centres on a handful of disaffected friends grappling with boredom, their tenuous prospects, and what passes for meaning in an environment that screams hopeless disenfranchisement. Mostly composed of static ‘one scene one shot’ sequences with occasional inter-scene editing (I can’t recall a single camera movement, although the odd one may have sneaked by), the minimalist formalism of Li’s deliberate and artfully mundane framing enhances the deadpan tone of his film. Some may find it laboured and self-conscious, but Li isn’t going for naturalism here, and he’s not especially concerned about audience identification either.
Winter Vacation is a socio-political satire that is at once dryly amusing and achingly poignant, typified in a scene where a young couple discuss their future – she, an academic failure willing to put romance aside to improve her grades, he, disillusioned but hoping to find meaning through procreation. Zhongxin (a cute, puffy cheeked four-year old boy) is frequently reminded to do what he’s told lest he be ‘kicked in the butt’. A teenager stoically takes repeated slaps to the face from another boy trying to wring every dollar out of him. A woman strips away the outer leaves of a cabbage (almost half the vegetable) before haggling over the price with the impoverished street-vendor. She then gathers the discarded leaves and takes them with her. While these scenes are wry comments on life in a dramatically changing China, they have much to say to (and about) all of us, regardless of our social or financial circumstances, or where we are in the world.
Throughout the film, intermittent volleys of distant explosions can be heard: fireworks perhaps, or gunfire, or sounds from dockyards, quarries, refineries or building sites. These sounds are never explained or directly referred to, but either way, their ominous overtones do not bode well for Li’s young protagonists. Ultra-downbeat musical interludes (composed and performed by Zuoxiao Zuzhou and The Top Floor Circus) accompany high-angle long-shots of the treeless township as it settles into successive somnolent evenings (a device used to separate each act of the film). The music evokes a near comatose state of benumbed incomprehension, as damningly critical (if not more so) as any of Li’s rhetorical images, and suggesting a very different take on the notion of the ‘sleeping giant’. Any hint of a nation united in a common struggle (marching with confidence towards a shared socialist utopia) is resolutely refuted. Indeed, the film’s ironic title hints at crushing stasis: hibernation, inactivity, dormancy, biding time, hovering between one state and another, frozen in a kind of limbo. In this respect, Winter Vacation has thematic parallels with the films of Jia Zhang-ke.
One can sense anger at the core of Winter Vacation, particularly in the final shot of a classroom of jaundiced high-school children over which thrashing music belts out from the hitherto subdued soundtrack. The previous scene was equally angry, in which a teacher deviates from the prepared lesson (on “how to be a useful person in society”) to harangue the class about how stupid people are to believe the smokescreens put up to disguise specious systems and ideologies. “You think you are souls of the universe,” he says, “but you know nothing. Libraries only increase human stupidity and arrogance.”
Of course, it’s the two pre-schoolers (Zhongxin and his girlfriend) who see beyond the constricted (compromised, corrupted, self-serving, deluded, fearful, resigned) limitations of, well, everyone. They talk about going to a place where they can be ‘orphans’, a comment that expresses a degree of perception and disillusion well beyond their years, the implications of which have been mirrored in the lives of every character from the opening shot. While Winter Vacation may not have wide appeal (and even those who appreciate it may not place it at the very top of their ‘best of the festival’ list), it is nevertheless a solid, serious minded work from a talented filmmaker, and well worth the effort of seeing.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader