Strange Vistas


Mr. Six photo

There are so many ways in which you can lose whatever relevance you had in the world.

It can be taken from you, by force, from others. That happens early, when it still has value. You would notice.

It can also wander away without you realizing it. You while away the days, keeping to your domain, while whatever influence or knowledge you had becomes less important, friends drift away, few remain behind you other than those who had similar trouble holding on.

Or, saddest of all, your can hold on to it for ages. You are still what you were, in your own back alley, while others build a new world just outside your borders, a world which continues to expand and accrete and compound without your knowledge until, a decade or so later, you are still holding on to your tiny speck of importance and your outdated code, neither of which has any relevance on this new environment.

That's Mr. Six. He was a gangster, used to settling problems with his code of honor and stern talking-tos and the inevitable back-alley fight. When his erratic son disappears, Mr. Six and his tools are inadequate to deal with the brave new world of impossibly rich kleptocrats and their well-insulated princelings. Too proud to ask for help, just sticking to what is exactly within his means or what he is owed, he tries. He brings along his band of old timers, small enough to fit around a tiny back-alley restaurant table and, like the restaurant, colorful, noisy and unpolished.

Nostalgia and its core cast, though, is most of what Mr. Six has going for it. Your enjoyment of the movie will depend on how much you get out of those two. The veterans need to face off against wooden young models and clunky camera angles. They convince you to stick around for a script that meanders before turning cloying, that backpedals from a brief critical look at its central character to lionize him, that abandons the personal scale for flash.

They almost carry the day.

#mrsix #china

Ciao Ciao looking at a field

Ciao Ciao” is salacious and colourful and snide and – I'd be willing to bet – a bit self-deprecating.

That's not how my notes described it. I have this long spiel about it being a movie of imbalances, of saturated images and grey lives, open landscapes and closed perspectives, people craving possessions and people possessing people.

Blah blah blah. Fuck all that.

During a tipsy pre-screening introduction, writer/director Song Chuan mentioned that he's from Yunnan himself, the area where the movie is based. He said that for him, the movie was about the explosion of material desires, how life moves faster than people are used to, and what that means for them.

I can see that. There's some of it in there, sure.

It might be the propelling force, as it's Ciao Ciao's (our... um... heroine) capricious materialism that lights the long wick trailing from the small town's powder keg.

But to its credit, the movie is not finger-wagging anti-capitalistic social commentary. Looking at it now, after having heard Song Chuan's inebriated introduction at the Berlinale, it strikes me how he stressed that while he's from the same province that the movie takes place in, the movie is not about his village.

That might be a filmmaker's version of saying a theme is based on someone he knows. He heard the anecdote from a friend. His girlfriend from Canada told him.

Ciao Ciao, our shining star, our pretty lead, returns to her little nothing of a home village in rural Yunnan for no specified reason. Her mom runs a hole-in-the-wall shop. Her dad steals from her mom to buy some bullshit remedies for an injury that's never described. They both want her to marry a rich guy so that she can take care of them in their old age.

How much of a nothing hick town is it? The bullshit remedies involve drowning a river snake on something that looks like a mixture of unfiltered grain liquor and oolong tea.

It's a poor area. Some woman complains that she slaves in the fields through the year to make half as much money as her son makes in six months elsewhere.

How poor are they? Ciao Ciao smokes like an unemployed hooker, and her mom complains that the smoking is consuming all their profits.

You know you mom has it rough when she nets in a day less than the cost of a pack of cigarettes.

Cute Ciao Ciao avoids her folks, takes long walks on beautiful rice paddies and on muddy orange clay roads, gazes at the green hills and mountains with undisguised longing. She gets messages from her friend in Canton, who sends status reports about the boutique they were going to open together. She doesn't seem to be in a hurry to leave.

Kind of weird, considering how much she bitches about what a dump the town is.

Pretty cityfied girl in a small village. Earlier we met the drunken, whoring no-good son of the local alcohol brewer, who complains that prostitutes there are not clean enough. He has a tanned, trim body, and is not saddled with an overabundance of brains or sensitivity. Later Ciao Ciao runs into a hairdresser who moved to the village from Canton, who doesn't look like he has lifted anything heavier than a pair of scissors in his life, but understands what she's about. Maybe they both miss the same high-rises and clubs and throbbing streets on a Saturday night.

You don't need to be a formalist to know where that's going.

It's not the big city's fault. It wasn't what changed Ciao Ciao. Even in the village, people judge you by which cigarette brand you smoke, if you buy whores for your friends when you win at gambling, how big your party is. Everyone cares too much about things.

In such a situation, there's nothing as dangerous as someone who stops giving even a single fuck.

Slow town life makes you complacent. “Ciao Ciao” is aware of this. The movie, not the character – the latter needs a reminder. This complacency means that you let problems slide, you don't deal with things, you delay handling something you should have fixed.

Until it all blows up in your face.

Much to my own delight.

If you have a chance, watch it.

#berlinale #china