Ren xiao yao
Review by Jonathan Foltz
Posted on 25 May 2011
Source Netflix VOD
Categories Jia Zhangke’s Migrations
The artifacts of popular culture are not really made for us. They are glassy monsters of generalized hope meant to accommodate all desires with equal indifference, and ill-suited to fit the puzzling meagerness of the life we inevitably find. Named after a Chinese pop song that is closer to Michael Bublé than Joy Division, Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures explores with revelatory directness the disappointments of life at the receiving end of other people’s idea of happiness. In abandoned bus stations, seedy basement clubs, and run-down hotel rooms converted to private theaters, on shoddy motorcycles and bootleg DVDs, the numbed small-town characters of Jia’s film hunt for modes of easy escape as inept as they are improbable. But there is also an unmistakable, if tragic, courage in the way these characters adapt their crumbled environments into ad hoc arenas for the outsized melodramas they wish they could have lived. There are sterner allegories at work in the film, which comments ambivalently on the intimate violence of distant economic forces and the Americanization of China’s disaffected youth. But Unknown Pleasures is most powerful, and most disarming, when these customary polemics recede from view and we are left, like the characters, to find places of habitable, improvisatory solace in the corners of the ordinary.
The plot of the film details the small-time exploits of two out-of-work friends, Bin Bin and Xiao Yi, which lead Xiao Yi into a doomed relationship with Qiao Qiao, the singer of a troupe of commercial performers (representing Mongolian King Liquor), whose agent/boyfriend/pimp, Qiao San, has trapped her in a life she is incapable of leaving. Bin Bin, on the other hand, is thrust into a short-lived and hopelessly misguided criminal life as a seller on the home-video black market, and finally as an ineffective bank-robber, in order to repay his debt to local hood Xiao Wu, played by Hongwei Wang reprising his role, though to a different effect, from Jia’s 1998 film. There are other plots casually implied in the background, with Bin Bin trying to join the army, his straight-laced girlfriend leaving him to go to college, and Xiao Yi’s father possibly acting as courier for a terrorist attack. Condensed in such a linear way, the plot could seem misleadingly thick with action, but Unknown Pleasures treats these narratives as obliquely sketched threads, moments of absurd punctuation for a world of incidental, impassive boredom.
Even the moments of histrionic crisis are played with an unsettling blankness and repetition. When Xiao Yi is dragged away from Qiao Qiao – in the middle of their imitation of the “Jack Rabbit Slim’s” dance from Pulp Fiction – and assaulted by a group of Qiao San’s thugs, Jia eviscerates the scene of conventional kinetic energy we might expect. One of the thugs baits Xiao Yi with the question, “Having fun?” only to viciously slap him, and then repeat the question, and each time he stubbornly answers “yeah”—a cycle they replay ridiculously over 30 times (the shot cuts before we see the end of the violence) and deliver with a syncopated, almost automatic, cadence which makes the moment feel blatantly mechanical. Later, Jia returns to this strategy in a similarly repetitious scene: as Qiao Qiao tries in vain to exit from Qiao San’s trailer, he violently pushes her down, only to have her start up toward the door again and again, and finally burst into tears. These are scenes of masochistic futility that underscore the characters’ desperation, as well as their perverse strength, but Jia achieves this effect precisely by depriving us of any recognizable staging of dramatic conflict and resolution.
But for all the film’s inexorable bleakness, Unknown Pleasures is full of unexpected beauty and directorial patience. In the film’s dazzling opening sequence, credits flash over the indistinct gestural image of children extending their hands as if to touch across a prison of barred shadows, while the camera pans to find Bin Bin sitting listlessly in the ruined bus station while a bedraggled stranger (played by Jia himself) sings hoarse operatic nonsense before an inattentive audience of playing children. It is an intricately paced and lyrically dense shot which highlights the startling pivot from the banal to the sublime. Here, and throughout the film, the stylized drift of the camera shows how abandoned zones of entrapment and inaction can be shot through with genuine pathos. These are not the gestures of realism, clearly, but they represent an unmistakably impassioned affirmation of life’s unvarnished reality and its remarkable flexibility in the unsteady hands of its amateurish subjects.
There is, then, a basic faith in the mundane which is presented alternately through the deliriously mobile choreography of Jia’s DV camera, and in the many scenes of resolute stillness that compassionately record Bin Bin’s intolerably awkward dates with his girlfriend. In one scene, they stare forward into the television, holding hands while singing along (barely) to Richie Ren’s titular pop song “Ren Xiao Yao” (or “Roam Freely”). It is an unflinching moment that shows the ineptitude, as well as the persistent lures, of pop culture to supplement the unavailable loves of the two mismatched kids. The song – which espouses the virtues of personal freedom and the vague idea that “we should do what we want” – recurs throughout the film: in Qiao Qiao’s audition dance, in her later discussion with Xiao Yi, and in the film’s brutal final scene, in which Bin Bin is forced to sing in front of an oddly sadistic (but mild-mannered) policeman. The song functions, then, as an increasingly painful reminder of culture’s incoherent idealizations. In Xiao Yi’s miserable attempt to woo Qiao Qiao, she taunts him to see if he would really act on his ridiculous advances. “How will you do me?” she asks, though he can only answer in the hackneyed language of food advertising. “I’ll make you soften as fast as instant noodles!” he says.
The flip-side of these impersonal pop fantasies is embodied in the disheveled character of the man periodically singing opera throughout the film. Played self-consciously by Jia himself, his voice is loud, irreverent, and unafraid of its sour notes, but as a looming fixture in the film he seems to affirm the idea that culture should be deformed and repurposed by those who enjoy it. “My mom’s crazy colleague sings opera!” remarks Bin Bin, in the opening line of the film, to which Xiao Yi responds “You just noticed?” The character of the opera singer is surreal to be sure, but he is treated as if he were just another part of the background, a fact which might lead us to believe that the small town of Dutong is not as mundane as we might think. Or that the mundane also contains within its bland routines the possibility for a uniquely expressive fantasy. Unknown Pleasures – in its stunning visual style and uncommon respect for its inarticulate characters – is full of suggestions that what can seem to be the product of the global economy’s tragic indifference is really just the effect of our having ceased to pay attention to the details.