The Ark and the Great Happiness: Young Chinese Filmmakers and Social Reality


The films reviewed here were screened during the Chai Chinese Film Festival in Leipzig, Germany, May 25-28, 2022.

Last month, the Chinese government said the world’s second-largest economy grew just 0.4% between April and June. The unemployment rate for urban youth aged 16 to 24 reached 19.3% in June and has generally shown an upward trend since it began to be recorded in 2018. A long-dreaded slump in China’s property market , which has played a crucial role since the 2008 global financial crisis in maintaining economic growth and social stability, was triggered last year by the default of property developer Evergrande.

Acute social inequality and increasingly reduced opportunities for new generations have led young filmmakers to want to document and question current social conditions in China.

The Chinese film festival CHAI in Leipzig, Germany, presented films about the pandemic, existential struggles and their impact on romantic and family relationships. However, the lack of political and historical perspective remains a serious obstacle.

The Ark (Dan Wei)

This was particularly felt in The Arka 101-minute documentary about the death of director Dan Wei’s grandmother, Zhang Xiuhua, shot in early 2020. It was his second work after the feature film warm house (2018).

The film opens with a black screen and the sounds of Ms. Zhang’s pain. No part of the dying process is left to the imagination. Throughout the film, the viewer witnesses the contents of colostomy bags, details of Ms. Zhang’s operation, and a heartbreaking scene where she cries out, is disoriented, and struggles to breathe.

Everything is shot in black and white and with a 1:1 ratio. There is no narration, the viewer must reconstruct the context of the family drama from the conversations that take place on the screen, which can sometimes be confusing.

Although the documentary is very focused on subjective suffering, we get a glimpse of the larger societal context in which it takes place. Family members repeatedly discuss bribing doctors to get better care. The one-child policy is mentioned, along with the cost of raising children these days, with a male parent uttering “These kids are going to kill you…get married, buy an apartment…”

“Such a sick country.” A relative adds.

Zhang Xiuhua’s eldest son struggles to pay for his treatment and resorts to calling acquaintances and asking them for loans. His wife and sister are embarrassed when they find out and berate him for it. His children’s tuition money is gobbled up to pay for his mother’s complicated treatment. At one point he said to no one in particular “I risk losing my job, the epidemic is still out of control, what should I do?”

The pandemic as such is barely present throughout the documentary. We see hospital staff cleaning hallways, news anchors talking about the new virus on hospital televisions, and a quarantined neighborhood.

Seeing Ms. Zhang’s family lovingly tend to all of her needs and supporting each other in their bereavement is touching, especially in light of the inhumane policies of world governments that have normalized the death of the elderly in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. COVID.

Critics called Dan’s film “personal” and noted its emotionally gripping nature. Dan said he hoped to reflect the dilemma and mental state of a Chinese family and create a connection during the pandemic.

But there comes a time when continually shaking the viewer emotionally to create a connection backfires and leaves them frustrated and numb. How can we truly understand or get anything out of a work that hurts us with virtually no context? Was this film really made for anything other than the director dealing with his emotions?

In the end, we are left with an overwhelming feeling of depression and hopelessness and wondering, “Well, how did it come to this? Dan only offers references to the Bible and Noah’s Ark in particular. The message seems to be that the only hope of escaping the sufferings of the world lies in the afterlife.

The great happiness

On the other hand, The great happiness by Wang Yiao, a mix of drama and comedy, is an illuminating and compelling portrayal of the director’s generation, born during the one-child policy.

great happiness (Wang Yiao)

Set in Xining, Qinghai province (northwest China), the story follows three friends, Wang, Sui and Li, who try to start their adult lives and meet the cultural and social expectations of those who preceded them.

The film opens with dizzying shots of endless identical skyscrapers and an unseen protagonist declaring “The value of the Chinese individual is measured in square meters”. “Why did they build so many buildings? Are there even people living inside? “, he asks.

We are first introduced to Wang’s parents, sitting on a couch in a fertility clinic. They remember the golden age of the 80s, when they were among the first families to afford a television and a washing machine thanks to their work in a factory. When the factory closed due to political reforms, the father was fired. They are now pinning all their hopes and savings on the IVF treatment of their infertile daughter-in-law. Wang appears to be the least troubled and most practical of the three friends and finds success in both his personal and professional life by the end of the film.

Li, who is about to get married, wants to be a building contractor and relies on his parents’ money to finance the projects he presents to his friends Wang and Sui. He tries to keep up the appearances of a promising entrepreneur with quasi-criminal tendencies, borrowing a BMW, donning temporary tattoos, spending money he doesn’t have, and making deals with dodgy characters who clearly intimidating. Although he comes across as unlikable and titled most of the time, some scenes suggest he’s just as insecure and vulnerable as his peers, which makes his end all the more tragic.

Finally, we have Sui, an idealistic and artistic architect who is frustrated with the soulless style of Chinese cities and dissatisfied with his romantic life. His fiancée Lisa, who seems rather stern and cold, wants to wait to have sex after marriage and criticizes Sui’s friendship with Li, saying he learns “dirty things from him”. A sexually frustrated Sui predictably cheats on her in their nuptial bed while on a trip to the UK, which ultimately leads to the end of their relationship. She nevertheless supports him when his mother falls ill and is the first to offer him to sell their new apartment to finance his treatment.

Sui’s business partnership with Li and Wang came to a head when they rejected his original designs for new kindergartens, suggesting that he use those from “Alibaba”, which were more suited to public taste. He angrily removes photos of Bill Gates and other self-made famous men from their shared desk and leaves. When Li died, Sui abandoned the project, leaving his shares to Wang.

The themes present in the film are those often encountered in contemporary Chinese cinema.

The one-child policy, introduced in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping, was an undemocratic and misguided attempt to combat China’s “economic backwardness.” Deng blamed the latter on “overpopulation” rather than the failure of Stalin’s program of “socialism in one country”.

The failure of this program led the bureaucracy to reintegrate China into the world market on a capitalist basis, a process which began in 1979 and included opening up to foreign investment, ending economic planning and introducing ‘private companies. In 1996, a wave of industrial reforms aimed at shutting down large swaths of state industry was carried out, with the aim of causing mass unemployment and ending the lifetime employment system or “rice bowl hell”.

The consequences of these developments are highlighted in great happiness: the excessive burden placed on the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, which is expected to provide for their parents and grandparents in a declining economy; the poisoning of romantic relationships by the enormous disparity between the sexes and family pressures as well as the poverty of intellectual and cultural life in a society where money is at the center of everything.

The characters in Wang’s film are portrayed with empathy, regardless of their choices. Humorous scenes are interspersed, some of which border on stupidity but match the general absurd and bewildered tone. The film also conveys feelings of loneliness and alienation. It has a considerable running time of 150 minutes, which could be attributed to a genuine interest in capturing and processing the realities faced by the characters and the director’s generation.

In a greeting to the audience that was read before the screening, Wang Yiao explained that his parents were unhappy with his career choice and wanted him to become a civil servant. He joked that the “Best First Feature” award he recently received would keep them quiet for maybe three years at most. We hope he can develop further as a filmmaker and look forward to his next feature film.


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