Black Snow (1990) – Points of the Existential Compass
One of the themes I keep returning to in my writings about film and literature is the tension that exists within us between the individual and the collective : On one hand, we all want to be true to ourselves and to express ourselves to the fullest without giving in to external pressures or allowing other people to take advantage of us. On the other, we are also deeply sociable creatures who yearn for human contact and the joys of sharing our successes and failures with friends and loved ones. While these two sets of desires are not mutually exclusive, they can interfere with each other. Resolving this interference pattern is not only central to our day-to-day existences, but also our political system.
Or is it?
It is extremely easy to fall into the pattern of seeing everything as a tension between two diametrically opposed extremes : Good and evil, capitalism and socialism, law and chaos, religion and atheism, nature and nurture, mysticism and rationalism, us and them. However, the simple fact that this kind of pattern can be applied to pretty much anything does not necessarily entail that it is picking up on some profound fact about the world. In fact, I would argue that it is a shallow and empty hermeneutic whose very shallowness explains its seemingly universal application. This kind of shallow analytical framework does pose significant dangers.
Indeed, assuming that our original balancing act is not just an empty truism then how certain are we that it is a universal fact about human life? While the desire to balance the needs of individual expression with those of social integration is one of the most common ways of thinking about life in the West in the 21st Century, it is by no means clear that this motif enjoys the same popularity elsewhere in the world. Do members of isolated Amazonian tribes worry about hypocritically trying to ‘fit in’? In his book Black Mass : Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), John Gray suggests that a tendency to assume that all political cultures are the same as ours is one of the regrettable short-comings of Western liberalism. It is, he argues, the kind of unwarranted assumption about other people that leads to blood-shed as when we encounter people who are not like us, it is all too easy to move from incomprehension to hostility.
Fei Xie’s Black Snow (Ben Ming Nian) is an interesting test case for the applicability of our dichotomy : Made in China in the late 1980s, the film initially presents itself as a rather generic art house film in which an alienated and isolated individual battles to re-engage with a society he long-ago turned his back on. However, Fei Xie’s approach to this challenge reveals a political culture with a very different set of attitudes to ours.
Li Huiquan (Jiang Wen) was a bad boy. A semi-literate drunkard, he spent his youth fighting other semi-literate drunkards in the back alleys of Beijing. Then, particularly drunk, he agreed to help a friend take revenge on a woman who was supposedly cheating on him. Except it turned out that the woman had dumped his friend months previously and that this friend’s idea of revenge lead to rape and murder. Three years later, Li Huiquan returns home to find his closest friends and family either dead or in prison, leaving him all on his own and having to rebuild what social networks he once had. Initially, this process of re-integration proves tricky as Li Huiquan’s surviving family keep him at arm’s length while he fights feelings of shame and alienation that keep him from getting a job and making friends. However, our hero then starts to find his feet as a market trader. His reputation as a former tough guy and his new-found wealth also win him the attention of an up-and-coming singer named Zhao Yaqui (Lin Cheng). Then comes the set back : Just as Li Huiquan works out that he quite likes Zhao Yaqui she disappears off to a performance camp where she makes a load of contacts. No longer needing a tough guy protector, Zhao Yaqui’s apparent rejection of Li Huiquan coincides both with his getting the opportunity to make underworld contacts and an old friend escaping from a labour camp and showing up on his doorstep.
Films dealing with social alienation and finding one’s way in the world are now so common in the West that one can effectively talk about them as a sub-genre complete with their own tropes and dramatic beats. Consider the above synopsis and compare it to films such as Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008), Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone (1998) and Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ‘66 (1998) and you will see a similar plot structure : An outsider character reaches some decisive moment in his life that forces him to re-examine the attitudes and decisions he has had about the people around him. Sustained by that initial self-critical impulse, the character makes a series of changes and starts to form new links to his community then a set-back occurs and the character either moves forward with his life by overcoming adversity, falls back into old patterns or – in an attempt to deconstruct the limitations of the genre – both. What is interesting about this sub-genre of film is that they invariably represent their protagonists as isolated loners faced with an indifferent and monolithic society. The impetus for adaptation and/or rejection lies entirely with the individual whereas society itself is presented as entirely passive and seemingly unchanging.
This belief that only individuals have agency reflects the post-war existentialist roots of the European art house tradition. Indeed, whether it is Camus in works such as The Stranger (1942) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Sartre in Nausea (1938), Kafka’s The Castle (1926) or Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864), individuals are invariably presented as heroic or tragic figures facing down a faceless and dehumanising universe, society or system. However, while Black Snow is undeniably a film that is part of this sub-genre, it presents the relationship between the individual and society in quite different terms.
The divergence sets in when Li Huiquan gets drunk and smashes a load of dishes in a local restaurant. He wakes up the following morning to find a policeman in his home. The policeman announces that had Li been working, he would have fined him but that, as he is penniless, he would settle for paying back the cost of the dishes. This policeman resurfaces throughout the film and is portrayed in a systematically positive light. First he is cutting our hero slack, next he is trying to set him up with a woman and then he is trying to convince Li to come forward and tell him all about the escaped convict. This is not the face of an inhuman system. This is the face of a society that is charitable, inclusive and forgiving. A society that does not crush non-conformity but rather rewards active engagement. Fei Xie further complicates the picture by having a criminal underworld that is far from nakedly individualistic : People play on old friendships in order to steal from Li while crooks make a lot of how friendly and inclusive they are. For Fei Xie, the choice between individual alienation and collective inclusion is far from a simple choice between progress and regress, let alone right and wrong. The director also wrong-foots us in the way in which he presents Li Huiquan’s relationship with the singer Zhao Yaqui. Initially, the relationship between the two characters is quite sweetly old-fashioned. Li Huiquan spends endless nights frustrated and alone in bed but he does not actively try to seduce the singer… he merely looks out for her and takes pride in walking her home. When Zhao announces that a friend will walk her home, Li is dumb-struck. Fei Xie uses two performances by Zhao to speak directly to the film’s moods and themes, suggesting that Zhao is somehow the heart of the film and a touchstone for Li Huiquan’s successful reintegration into Chinese society but, having traded in all his money for a gift he hopes will demonstrate his love for the singer, Li is told the she now only accepts gifts of flowers from her fans.
Li’s relationship with Zhao represents the challenge of individual decision-making in the face, not of a faceless and monolithically unsympathetic universe but a dynamically shifting and changing social climate. In the end, Li fails to integrate not because he fails to self-actualise or decides to lapse back into his old habits, but because by the time he is in a position to join society, society has moved on leaving him behind. He approaches Zhao from the stand-point of an old-fashioned suitor, but Zhao is a modern woman. She has embraced the times and moved with them in a way that Li has singularly failed to do despite his apparent modernity and excellence as a market capitalist.
In a fascinating article in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson confronts some of the popular (and largely self-serving) mythology that has emerged about the expansion of modern China’s economic and cultural power. Citing Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State (2008) by Yasheng Huang, Anderson writes :
“His central finding is that the apparently unbroken rates of high-speed growth have rested on two quite different models of development. In the 1980s, a general liberalisation of financial policy allowed private businesses to flourish in the countryside, many under the misleading sobriquet of ‘township and village enterprises’, as credits flowed to peasant start-ups and rural poverty fell dramatically. Then came the shock of 1989. Thereafter, the state abruptly changed course, choking off credits to rural entrepreneurs, switching loan capital instead into large, rebuilt state-owned enterprises and urban infrastructures, and – not least – granting massive advantages to foreign capital drawn to the big cities.”
It is interesting to look at Black Snow in light of these social and economic changes. Fei Xie’s film was produced at a time of violent social flux; After decades of monolithic collectivism, China had moved to a system that encouraged individual entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship of the kind demonstrated by Li Huiquan as a market trader. However, by the time the film was made and released, this policy had been reversed as the state switched its investment away from individuals such as Li and towards larger commercial collectives.
The shifting of the sands beneath Li’s feet constitutes a rejection of the traditional existentialist model of the system as a faceless undifferentiated mass. Instead of offering us self-actualisation as a simple dichotomous choice, it suggests a two-sided interaction where fully integrated individuals can find themselves left out in the cold by a state system that abruptly turns its back on the people. A state system and society that change suddenly according to the whims of a centralised and autocratic leadership. A state system and society that constitute a moving target. As a result, Li is not your typical existential anti-hero : He is not Meursault hoping only for the hatred of the population as he walks to the Guillotine. Nor is he Dmitri Karamazov impulsively spending money he does not have on a send-off for the woman he loves while the sword of damocles hangs over his head. He is a tragic victim not of his own folly or his own intransigence or even his own principles : He is a victim of a society that moves too fast to keep up with. He made the wrong decisions and while he made them in good faith, he made them too late.