It is impossible to overstate the enduring influence of existentialism on art house film. Since disentangling themselves from the mainstream of popular cinema back in the 1960s, art house filmmakers have worked hard to create a set of narrative techniques that perfectly capture what it’s like to feel lost and a little bit sad in a world rippling with beauty and potential. This tension between the world’s extraordinary potential and our own failure to make the most of it is what lies at the heart of all existential thought and most art house film. Indeed, these techniques and the moods associated with them are now so common in European and World cinema that their deployment has started to feel more like a professional rite-of-passage than an expression of manifest truth.
Winner of the Best International Film award at the 2012 Edinburgh International Film Festival, Chinese director Mao Mao’s first film Here, Then (Ci Chu Yu Bi Chu) is an excellent example of how to launch a directorial career: As technically brilliant and thematically rich as any conventional art house film produced in the last five years, Mao Mao’s debut proves that he can use conventional art house techniques to tell a conventional art house story about alienation, isolation and the yawning chasm at the heart of middle-class life.
Easily summarised as a story about sad Chinese people staring into the middle-distance while aspirational pop music blares from the tinny speakers of their mobile phones, Here, Then follows a group of Chinese teenagers as they struggle to find some source of happiness in their otherwise hollow lives. Mao Mao stakes out this thematic territory in an eye-catching opening sequence in which a girl wakes up, stares into the middle-distance and begins to sing an uplifting pop song about the importance of individuality and the trap of choosing to express that individuality in the same way as everyone else. Intriguingly, while the song’s lyrics clearly contain the director’s message, the girl does not voice them herself… she simply sings along karaoke style with little understanding of what the words mean or how she is supposed to act upon them.
The tension between the message of aspirational pop music and the realities of life resurfaces throughout the film as the teenagers prove themselves to be incapable of anything even remotely resembling agency. Mao Mao shows what he thinks of his characters by opening a scene with a blurred shot of a street from the inside of a shop. Soon, the camera pulls back to show two teenagers talking about their lives and being unable to reach a decision about leaving home. Almost in disgust, the camera zooms back towards the window in order to show one of the teenagers leaving… these aren’t people, they’re just blurry figures in the background of the world.
Mao Mao underlines this vision of millennial China by borrowing a trick from the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Kiarostami has always understood that much of the impact of art house film comes from the tradition’s willingness to allow the audience to use its imagination and make their own sense of what it is that the filmmaker is trying to say. Kiarostami does not just believe in giving the audience creative agency and allowing them to create their own theories about the film, he even goes so far as to position important things out of shot in an effort to make us imagine what all the fuss is about. In the case of Shirin (2008), the object was a film viewed by an audience of Iranian women. In the case of Certified Copy (2010) it was not only works of art but also entire sections of the plot. We see Mao Mao’s debt to Kiarostami in the coffee shop sequence but also in a later scene where a teenager waits patiently in a hotel lobby while her date books a hotel room. The camera remains focused on the teenager but the important stuff happens just out of focus, suggesting that the teenager has positioned herself just out of reach of the important stuff in life, as though living in a bubble of perfect impotent clarity.
The film’s standout scene features two teenage girls standing at what seems to be a bus stop. Clearly waiting for someone to arrive, the two girls scan the area with their gaze but neither talk, nor recognise each other’s presence. Suddenly, a car pulls up and dance music flows from its windows prompting the two girls to begin swaying to the beat. After a couple of minutes, the girl from the opening scene seems to catch our eye and the camera zooms in on her face. As though suddenly allowed access to her inner world, the pop music fades out only to be replaced with urban white noise. The implication here is that there is absolutely nothing happening in the young woman’s head… the music captures her attention and causes her to dance but the dancing is mechanistic and entirely empty of emotional substance. Indeed, having stared deep into the young woman’s eyes and touched her thoughts, we are no closer to knowing who she was than when we simply watched her dance.
The final act of the film reunites the teenagers what we assume is a number of years later. The young women are now older women who spend their time hanging out with wealthy men and having sex. The young man behaves in much the same way… drifting from one hotel room to another with women he once considered his friends. Indeed, despite clearly knowing each other, the characters are at pains to acknowledge their connection… when one woman asks the man why he abandoned her, he simply shrugs off the question and walks away. When the male character meets up with the woman from the bus-stop, she appears to have become a sex worker and while the man uses his mobile phone to play one of the aspirational songs that feature earlier in the film, there is no trace of recognition… the potential for freedom and individuality has been snuffed out by a culture that tricks us into mistaking cosmetic attractiveness and hollow-skulled hedonism with happiness and self-fulfilment.
Let me be clear: Here, Then is a technically brilliant piece of filmmaking that deserves to be considered alongside Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City of Sylvia (2007), Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte (2010) and Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008) as an example of quite how much film can communicate without ever resorting to dialogue. The problem with Here, Then is that while Mao Mao makes great use of traditional art house storytelling techniques, his reliance on traditional ideas and symbols also extends to his world-building resulting in a film with themes that are not so much ‘mature’ as downright out-dated. Nowhere is this extreme intellectual conservatism more evident than in Mao Mao’s depiction of women.
Easily the most problematic scene in the film comes after an uncharacteristically upbeat interlude in which the teenagers cavort happily at the beach. As the young woman from the café walks back along the beach, the young man from the café follows her on his motorcycle. Despite the young man trying to make eye contact, the young woman ignores him and walks faster until eventually giving up and jumping on his bike. The next thing we see is the pair naked in an abandoned construction site. Initially, the writhing looks like consensual sex but then the young woman seems to want to get away forcing the young man to hold her down and tear off her tights. The woman soon stops squirming and not long after, the boy stops trying to have sex with her… the implication being that these teenagers are so devoid of agency that they can’t summon sufficient willpower to either fight-off a rapist of to commit a rape. This association of female emotional collapse with a descent into prostitution plays out throughout the film including the scene at the bus stop where the aimless dancing of the two teenaged girls is reminiscent of the way that sex workers tout for business outside South East Asian nightclubs. Totally unnecessary and unarguably sexist given Mao Mao’s refusal to offer any wider explanation for the teenagers’ lack of agency, the association of female existential angst with rape and prostitution is as much a part of the art house tradition as the use of long pauses and off-camera action to encourage audience participation in the creative process.
Earlier in 2013, I was lucky enough to get the chance to review two sets of films by Claude Chabrol and Robert Bresson. Made in the 1960s during great golden age of French film, all four features explore the ways in which the world can take young, intelligent people and shatter them into a thousand tiny pieces. Technically and thematically quite similar, all four films concern a sensitive rural teenager who struggles with the rules and requirements of the adult world. The big difference between the two sets of films is that whereas Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959) follow the travails of young men, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967) follow a pair of young women. Interestingly, while Chabrol conveys the spiritual and emotional collapse of his male characters by having them resort to violence, Bresson conveys a very similar emotional state by having his female characters become complicit in their own rape and prostitution. Indeed, Mao Mao is not just an heir to the technical legacy of directors like Bresson and Chabrol; he is also heir to their frequently questionable (and almost entirely unchallenged) depiction of women.
The great writer, artist and film director Jean Cocteau once argued that style is a simple way of saying complicated things. Stripped of dialogue and yet overflowing with meaning, Mao Mao’s Here, Then uses a mature cinematic style to deliver what is ultimately a mature and extremely well-rehearsed cinematic message about the spiritual void at the heart of the bourgeois experience. The problem is that by carefully re-using techniques and symbols developed in a by-gone age, Mao Mao has created a film content to uncritically repeat the prejudices of that age. Being an artist is not just about technical competence… it is about mastering creative tools developed in the past and using them to speak of the present… Mao Mao has proved with this film that he has the first part of that equation solved but whether or not he has something relevant to say about the present remains very much to be seen.