At the 69th Berlinale, the Panorama selection marked its 40th edition. The section that is dedicated to films that tend to provoke and challenge their audience took a shape of own retrospective or, perhaps more precise, own reflection. Thematically grouped films from its history screened to face the current film aesthetics, approaches to the narrative, stories, ideas, and ideologies. Within the group, Obscure Film Worlds screened “The Night” of then 21/22 years old Zhou Hao.

The Night screened at Berlin Film Festival

The story is very simple. A young male prostitute (Zhou Hao) meets a young female prostitute (Li Jin Kang). They make up some names inspired by flowers: he becomes Tuberose, she Narcissus. Each night they meet at work, they chat about life, the universe, and everything, casually interrupting their conversation when a client calls. Until Tuberose meets a new guy, Rose (Liu Xiao Xiao), who falls for him. The two become a triangle and the dynamics of the relationship change.

“The Night” opens with a scene shot in black & white and from the first person point of view. After the scene is over, it switches to a “normal” digital camera. That and no additional lightening give the film cinnamon-orangey tint combined with soft focus.  The choice of shots showing no faces of the clients except for Rose convene the idea(s) evolved in the work chats of Tuberose and Narcissus, add intimacy to the bond between the two, while simply confirming the clients as bodies passing by, as anonymous as possible.

The dialogues vary from casual raillery, sexual practices to philosophical issues of being a mistake, life as a misfortune, pre-determination and so on. The lines sometimes feel like written by one of the characters from the early Jim Jarmusch`s films (or Only Lovers Left Alive`s Adam). On the other hand, they are so much adult that they are a perfect fit for someone in their early twenties, misunderstood and thinking mainly in absolutes. You know, the casual tragedy of being twenty-something, when all other roads seem closed and the fate is just fatal. Plus, they are quite playfull.

Zhou`s film does not look away from sexuality that appears in talks about sexual practices, ice cream in various stage of being consumed and of melting, and even includes gay and non-gay sex scenes. All this is shown as a casual, everyday routine of that part of the world where, somehow, homosexuality does not exist. Nor does abuse of women and prostitution because they are illegal in China. The issues of one`s identity and sexual as well as emotional identity, in particular, take slightly different shapes in intermezzos showing Tuberose`s grooming rituals in front of a mirror while listening to love songs by Teresa Tung about Narcissus and later, a song about a (Malay) Rose plays.

“The Night” saw the light of the day thanks to a good dose of stubbornness, determination, and support of Chinese City College Students. Written by Zhou, shot in several weeks, nights only. It has its flaws but displays some talents also in the art of being inspired by others while staying true to oneself. Mainly, it is very easy to not to focus on what the production lacks but enjoy what can be done with the equipment and facilities available instead: framing, acting, dialogues, and diction.

It is only pity that towards the end of the film, Hao as a scriptwriter and director resorted to silly storytelling crutches and made the characters do, not their usual naive, but stupid and out-of-character mistakes to add some drama, or just simply go on and in a monologue make sure the audience understood the infernal dilemma of our main hero(es). Pity, because otherwise he proved very resourceful and wielding a slightly cynical sense of (self-)humour, showing no unnecessary sympathies with the characters. It might be interesting to see another feature of his but for the moment, Zhou seems to prefer shorts.

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