“Winter Vacation” is a Chinese Independent film, an absurdist comedy, with a stark streak of pessimism. Winter Vacation is an extremely arty film too, with long static visuals punctuated with explosions of intelligent humour that can be laughed out loud. All the generations feature in this mini odyssey into perplexed ennui of an Inner Mongolian town. Children, teenagers, middle-aged adults and the elderly are all in a state of existential angst, all going nowhere with nothing to do; they’re all bored out of their minds. Traditionally, the Chinese winter vacation is a time of the year when families get together for a big celebration. With the itinerant nature of migrant work in China, family members can travel hundreds, if not thousands of miles to re-join their families for this celebration. Li Hongqi deconstructs this celebration and family relations, where in this mysterious town, the celebration seems to be occurring at some unknowable distance. Most of the characters are engaged in an intellectual exploration of trying to find something to do, but instinctively know that is a complete waste of time. The characters are well beyond “Waiting For Godot”! The tension within families is perfectly described by the relationship of the most fascinating character in the film, the young boy and his Grandpa, who is always threatening to get his uncle to kick his butt!
Watch This Title
The script by Li Hongqi bursts with absurdist wit and extreme melancholic pessimism, both hilarious and sad, usually at the same time. In The Western oeuvre Camus, Beckett and Kakfa can be discerned in Li Hongqi’s writing, but he peppers the existentialism with outrageous humour. Visually, Li Hongqi is a minimalist, with long static shots, but he composes the frames in an immaculate fashion. The positions of the characters, in relation to the minimal furniture, or the external decaying buildings, are both beautiful and alienating. His compositions are like a minimalist version of King Hu’s more extravagant compositional shots in “Come Drink With Me”, positioning is everything! Each shot is framed like a piece of art.
Li Hongqi, in an interview, admitted that he is a disciplinarian with his actors, intensely directing them in relation to his compositions; how they move, sticking to the script, how they emote etc… Ironically he doesn’t want anything too extreme in relation to emotion. He wants it subtle and deadpan, not emotionally challenging. No method actors need apply when it’s comes to Li Hongqi’s brilliant visual and written poetry. It is within his compositional framing that his words can detonate, without the need for emotional histrionics. He is completely correct to use this method. His detached deadpan method of direction makes the lines incredibly funny, but desolate too. “Winter Vacation” is an engrossingly captivating film, for those of a certain depressive disposition. This article is a long meditation on this unique cinematic experience, rather than a brief review, so it is full of spoilers! I’ve drawn attention to long slices of the script, to demonstrate the highly skilled build-up of absurdities that Li Hongqi weaves. Even in translation, his writing ability shines. The article looks at both his cinematic and writing skills.
Inner Melancholic Monolithic Mongolia
Inner Mongolia is visually styled as a shabby modernistic purgatory. Rooms and buildings seem to have had some half arsed attempt at redecoration, but, more or less, given up at the very start. Random bits of gaffer tape are stuck here and there. This decrepit shambolic décor, with faded colour, imbues the whole town. Perhaps they were once bright yellows and shining whites, but those glory days are long past. This urban tedium is something we might expect from Soviet inspired architectural functionality, but these fine meditations on urban dislocation are scattered throughout the capitalist ‘free’ world too. It seems that the working poor must accept to be completely alienated with the housing that is provided for them by the State. It doesn’t matter where that maybe in the world, what political or economic system is in place, the story is always the same. These buildings are human traps, the very opposite of utilitarian and functional. This style of housing, for the masses, is a fine example of top down hierarchy and privileged contempt, built on the cheap. Chunks of monolithic concrete breed despair, as their inhabitants stare out into nothing.
Li Hongqi, with his cinematographer, Qin Yurui, captures this idiocy right from the start of the film. To add a little more confusion to this fine film, Yurui, according to another interview featuring the director, is actually Li Hongqi himself, under a pseudonym. It looks as if Li Hongqi shot the film, wrote it, edited it, is one of the art directors (under Qin Yurui again) and directed it! His opening long static shot focuses in on a shabby yellow building, in the typically decaying, functional, 1950/60s modernist style. The shot is composed like a painting of an urban landscape. The pitiful nature of the building is given a melancholic hue of beauty by the desaturation of the frame by the cinematographer. The street is practically empty, until a man walks by. He stops in the middle of the frame, where a crossroad is situated in front of the building. He looks left and then right, then carries on walking forward. Whatever function the building was used for, is long gone, with some of the windows and doors boarded up. The sound of a repeated verbal motif can be heard in the background, like a needle stuck on the groove of a record, repeating. The sound sprinkles added eeriness to the sparse architecture. An occasional firework goes off in the background, though any evidence of a big celebration is lacking, apart from the ghostly fireworks. Two teenagers meet at the crossroads, in front of the building and discuss their winter vacation homework, one hasn’t done it and the other can’t find his exercise book!
Another lad appears and ponders whether they should go round the vegetable market, the height of exhilaration for teenagers in Inner Mongolia. He’s heard a rumour that a good looking woman is a new seller there and he wants to see this beauty for himself. One of the lads declares
I was just at the market and there’s nothing to see. One ordinary woman, that’s all.
It’s just that she’s’ a stranger
This amounts to the height of excitement for these teenage lads, a woman stranger in town, at the vegetable market! The three of them stand looking at each other, all with their hand in their pockets. They all wear jeans, trainers and thick casual coats, due the Inner Mongolian cold, but these could be bored teenage working class lads anywhere in the world. Even though fireworks are going off in the background and the eerie constantly repeating words waft across the air, they decide this lady is not worth the effort and they’ll go track down their friend Zhou Zhixin. Ennui infects the whole atmosphere of the film, within the first three minutes!
Surreally, the lads walk past a white building with a man on a microphone, intoning the repeating words. The words are chanted perfectly in uniformity, like a recording on repeat. The building might be some sort of shop, it is not apparent, but the place is empty, apart from the man repeating the words. The street is also empty, apart from the teenage lads walking by. To add to the absurdity, a man walks by ignoring the teen and one of the boy’s calls out ‘Dad’! He pauses for a second then carries on walking. The guys stand for a moment, with their hands in their pockets. In a deadpan style, his friend asks
Did your Dad forget to take his medicine again?
They carry on walking, ignoring the droning man. This whole scene is completely absurd, played in shuffling straight-faced style. It is both funny and incredibly sad. Major family issues are just another slick of sludge, blending in with sheer boredom.
A young studious teenager, with spectacles, is browsing through a book of Etymology. He sits on a chair. He is reading through the verb and noun meanings of the word “habituate” and the origins of the word, throughout various languages. A large bare white wall is behind him, with a white lamp on a table at the corner of the shot. This room is unlike most teenagers rooms, sparse, and purely functional. No posters, not a mass of clothes of the floor, just a minimalist room.
Origin: late Middle English in the sense, formation of habit.
It seems the people of Inner Mongolia have become habituated to something, or perhaps, nothing.
Kick Your Butt
In another sparse room, a young child squatting in front of a comfortable looking brown chair, as an elderly man sits on the brown sofa. The wall is bare white. There is one plant in the corner of the room, by plain looking curtains. The old man is dressed in his finest shirt. It is a silky black shirt with big red dots on it. There is a glass table in front of the sofa with a dish of grapes on it. There is a healthy distance between the child and the older man, large personal spaces are essential for this particularly family occasion. The child looks forward, with his hand under his chin, looking bored, the old man stares out of the window expressionlessly. This long static shot observes the two protagonists, as they sit there, not doing very much. The old man keeps briefly looking back at the child, and then returns to look outside. He finally stares at the kid and after a while calls his name Zhou Zhongxin. Nonsensically, the old man says to the Zhou Zhongxin,
Be calm or your Uncle will come out and kick your butt.
Zhou Zhongxin looks suitably unimpressed and sulkily plonks himself down on the edge of the sofa, a safe distance away from the old man. They stare at each other in silence.
Li Hongqi shoots a close up of the chubby Zhou Zhongxin, who has a look of complete contempt on his young face. He declares, in a calm fashion,
I don’t want to be your Grandson anymore.
There is now a close up of grandpa, in his fine shirt and tidy grey hair; he has an equally withering look. Grandpa mockingly asks if Zhou Zhongxin wants to be his grandpa instead.
Zhou Zhongxin gets to the point of the dispute and asks Grandpa, in a restrained fashion,
Let me go out and play for ten minutes, I’m begging you.
Hilariously Granddad replies
Didn’t you already go out to play yesterday?
It seems that playtime for little Zhou Zhongxin is rationed to the minutiae. They go back to their previous staring positions, with Zhou Zhongxin looking at the floor, as Grandpa looks out of the window. Zhou Zhongxin fidgets with his fingers. The doorbell rings and finally Zhou Zhongxin can do something as Grandpa asks him to see who is at the door. The distance between Zhou Zhongxin and his Grandpa is immense. There are no histrionics, just disdain and annoyance with each other. The “Winter Vacation” family is action!
A Shrug At Death
The studious teenager is still reading his book, as a close-up focuses in on a chubby teenager asleep in bed. There is an artist style composition of the room, which is the ultimate teenage wasteland of a room! There is a bed, a table, a lamp and lots of white bare walls, the room of an uncompromising existentialist. Jef’s room from “Le Samurai” is a cluttered mess in comparison to this austere space. The studious teen is reading his book of words, as the chubby teen is asleep in bed, an Antarctic view of teenage inner life. After a while, the three bored teens enter the room, bored with wondering around the empty town; five young lads in a room. The sleeping teen is Zhou Zhixin, and the studious teen proclaims that is hanging out with Zhou Zhixin. Hanging with Zhou Zhixin entails reading a book as he sleeps!
What you are two up to?
Nothing in mind yet. I’m waiting for him to wake up to discuss it.
This is incredibly deadpan stuff. All the teenagers are emotionally restrained, but matter of fact in their discussion, the whole situation is completely bizarre, and funny. Those with an appreciation of oddball pessimism will enjoy this film. All the lads stare at each other and director switches to the full room view again, the three teens from smallest to tallest standing gazing at the studious student, all with their hands in pockets. The studious teen, with his book on his lap, looks back. All of them have entered the ennui zone. Zhou Zhixin is still asleep. The composition of this shot is lovingly made, with a desaturated grey cinematography contrasted with the red coat of one of the teenagers and green duvet that Zhou Zhixin is sleeping under. Li Hongqi’s obsessive, but minimalist meticulous eye is in full effect with this shot. The brusque teen, in his woolly hat and coat zipped up to the chin, goes to check on Zhou Zhixin. He sticks his finger under his nose, to check his breathing. In magnificent straight-faced style, the tough looking teen declares:
There’s no need to wait anymore, prepare the funeral.
This is both hilarious and unsettling. The expressionless style is but a shrug of the shoulders at death, which is tragic for youths so young. Nothing fazes them, his declaration paradoxically comical. At this moment, Zhou Zhixin awakens, he’s not particularly surprised to see four lads loitering in his room! He heaves himself up and grabs something to eat. All the lads hang around in their affectation of bored patience. They are all awaiting for something indistinct, which they know intrinsically, is not going to occur. In finest absurdist fashion, they go through the motions anyway. Li Hongqi throws in another obsessive style shot of the room, every teen in its place, all looking at Zhou Zhixin for some sort of inspiration! No wonder he sleeps, such a burden of existential guidance is expected from his friends, he deals with it by stuffing is face!
The Green Woolly Hat!
Li Hongqi lingers on the lads all gawking at nothing in particular, lost in their emotionless angst, until there is a knock on the door! There is no hesitation by Zhou Zhixin, he instantly invites the person in, something is happening! A teenage girl walks through the door, she has a quick look around and notices the room filled with teenage boys!
I’ll come back tomorrow
Zhou Zhixin sees that she has something in her hand, and asks if it is food. He likes his basic comforts.
No. It is a woollen hat I made for you
It seems that our chubby lad Zhixin is also a focus for this young teenage girl, with tokens of possible affection. She is as deadpan as the rest of the boys. Zhou Zhixin has a sage like status amongst the youth of this Inner Mongolian town. No wonder he craves food!
The next slice of ‘action’ is comical, for those of a certain disposition. This is a long languid shot, about a green woolly hat inspection. Zhou Zhixin gives it a thorough examination, turning in and out, feeling its texture. The tough kid, who is already wearing a woolly hat, decides he wants to have a look, and the hat passes from one lad to the next, all scrutinising this hat, with great interest. The young lady stays still as a statue, in the same affectation of bored patience, as the boys intensely examine the hat, like it is the Holy Grail itself. This whole scene is magnificently ridiculous as these Zen teens take the hat highly seriously, whether for its workmanship, its value as a token of affectation, or in the Li Hongqi context, basically for something to do. A green kitted woolly hat is the height of excitement, though none of the teenagers show any emotion whatsoever, apart from the odd nose snuffle. The hat finally returns to Zhou Zhixin and he contemplates the hat further, puts it back in the black bag and he decides
I am still young, I don’t need that thing.
The studious student wittily replies
Honestly Zhou Zhixin, I think it is a pretty nice hat, and it matches your skin colour perfectly.
The young lady adds
It took me several days to finish it, if it doesn’t fit, tell me and I can change it for you.
The fact that Zhou Zhixin doesn’t try it on there and then, means that having a green woolly hat is very serious business, philosophically, and for its workmanship and fit. He needs more contemplation on the matter before trying it on. The teenage girl will accommodate the specifics of the hat, if needs be. She leaves the room, so Zhou Zhixin carries on eating, as the rest of the lads wait!
A retro looking clock fills the frame; it is coming up the half past six. There are four dishes of food on the table, Zhou Zhixin tucks in. He doesn’t hesitate when it comes to food. There is a young man and woman eating too, with Zhou Zhongxin sat next to Grandpa. As is prevalent throughout this film, names are not forthcoming to most of the characters, and the relations of this family group are not fully explained (though probably self-explanatory for a Chinese audience), but for a “Winter Vacation” meal, there is great deal of eating and not much talking. Not exactly the chatty family feast one would expect on such a celebration. Grandpa is the only one who seems dressed for the occasion, in is his fine shirt. Zhou Zhongxin is not eating, he gawps at his Grandpa. Zhou Zhixin, the young statesman, is at the head of the table. Young Zhou Zhongxin decides to get up, leaving his bowl of rice. The young lad stands next to Zhou Zhixin,
Get away from me. You took all the nice smell of my food away.
This is a magnificent line, witty and very cruel toward poor Zhou Zhongxin. The young woman, most likely his mother, warns him
Zhou Zhongxin, eat your dinner properly or your Uncle will kick your butt.
From the jigsaw of this particularly family, Zhou Zhixin is probably the Uncle, though this is never overtly spelled out. Zhou Zhongxin is once again threatened with a butt kicking, for simply standing up! The family eats on, as Zhou Zhongxin sits still, alienated. Li Hongqi takes several close-ups of the family eating. Zhou Zhongxin looks on, without eating, as several minutes tick by. The family is completely deconstructed, with everyone locked in their eating inner worlds, no talking, no interaction, until Zhou Zhongxin moves. He tries to stir the pot of communication, but receives butt kicking threats for his efforts. The young boy tries to make things happen, but is slapped down for it. He can only look on emotionlessly, like the rest of the family. Another funny nonsensical scene, that is very melancholy.
An Interlude In The Desolate Twilight Of Artiness
Li Hongqi now treats us to a long arty shot, with an elevated camera looking down upon the desolate urban geography of this part of town. It is during twilight, the light gives the landscape a peculiar edge. On the edge of the frame are monolithic slabs of concrete, some former functional building long gone to seed, with a look of absolute desolation. There is a scruffy and littered open space, in front of the slab like monoliths, with a strange hut/stable feature, containing some undiscernible animal, with the back end sticking out. This is a paradise of alienation. In the background, a bizarre piece of music plays, by The Top Floor Circus. A slightly off key singer is la la’ing a nursery rhyme style melody, with various percussive sounds and bizarre sounds accompanying the voice. A man with his hand in his pockets, head down, slowly walks through this mouldering urban playground of tedium. The background soundscape goes even more bizarre with this an almost pre-language style call and response routine for a chorus. The off key nursery rhyme motif starts up again as another lone interloper walks into this crumbling town space. The animal carries on doing what it is doing, which doesn’t seem to be very much. Again, it is unclear what the creature is. My guess would be a baby elephant, which would just add to the surreal nature of the scene. The creature causes no curiosity from the walking figures. Li Hongqi visually describes alienation in this arty but witty demonstration of his film technique. The crazy soundtrack heightens the dislocation.
The next scene is perhaps the most stylised, and theatrical of the whole film, and works well as a pessimistic view of human relations. It is a simple metaphor of the bully and the bullied, but played out in a strange ritualised form. This scene is highly exaggerated, but very specific, all performed at a stately pace, giving it an almost religious feel. This meditation on coercion, violence, domination, is also very funny, due to bizarre formalised nature of the scene. Two teenagers face each other, with brick walls and a series of scruffy doors in the background. The smaller teen, wears a furry hat, which is slightly too big for him and a grey coat; he looks to the ground. A shorter haired, tough looking teenager faces him, with his casual sportswear top and jeans. They stand like statues until the short haired teenager, gives the smaller lad a huge slap with his right hand. The bullied lad moves his head slightly, in a restrained version of stress. He puts his hand in his pocket, and passes a note of some money to the bully. This is where the ritualised nature of the scene is embellished. The bully careful unwraps the notes, holds it up to the light, to examine it carefully, turning over the note, to make sure it is legitimate. He then pulls up his wallet, in a theatrical flourish; he puts the money in his wallet and places it back in his pocket, returning his glare to the coerced party. All the time this occurring, the boy just stands waiting patiently. There’s no massive explosion of violence from the bully, no flurry of kicks and punches and blood. The bullied lad doesn’t defend himself or run off, this is visual and ceremonial metaphor. They both assume their statuesque positions, and after a pause, the bully slaps the smaller teenager again. The boy bends down to pull a note out, as it is out of shot, probably from his socks. The bully waits in a Zen like fashion for his ill-gotten gains. The bullied gives the note to the bully, and he goes through his stylised movements, checking the note and putting into his wallet with a display. He slaps the younger boy once again, but he proclaims that is all he has got. The bully is unconvinced and gives him another slap for good measure. He takes his hat off and gives the bully a note hidden there, and the whole drama is repeated. The shot shifts to a wider angle, wedges of concrete and dusty windows encroaching onto the scene. The bully launches another slap, but a man on cycle, with a big cart style contraption on the front, enters the scene. The bully takes another swipe, as the man takes his time to dismount off his bike and walk over to the bully. The man gives the bully a clip round the head. In his woolly bobbled hat, the man tersely tells the bully to hand the cash back over. He gives the man his wallet, and then takes the cash out and gives it back to the young lad, asking if it is the right amount. The man then throws the wallet on the floor, in a show of contempt. There is always a bigger fish. He tells the bully to get lost. The thug turns away and picks up his wallet and he walks away. The man asks the timid boy why he didn’t fight back. The young lad thinks he can suffer a few hits, he can take it. He questions whether fighting back would make him a bad person, violence is an unpleasant business, so he’ll pay the bully tax.
Beside, Dad, look at me. You think I can take him by myself?
The man, his Father, doesn’t answer. Such world weary pragmatic pessimism from one so young! The scene shifts back to lots of brick, dirty windows and a series of shabby doors, a couple of them have some faded and dust covered colour, but they are all drab. It is such a beautiful world! Zhou Zhixin walks along this beautiful vista of dusty doors, eating, as the bully passes him by. They both stop and the bully grabs the food for his hands, so Zhou walks off. The bully starts stuffing his face as another taller teenager walks by and the bully asks him where he’s going. Without raising his head from his book he nonchalantly replies that he’s off on a date with the bully’s mother and he walks away! He certainly put the bully in his place with his dry wit, and his bigger size. The mysterious fireworks go off in the background, as the bully eats the food he’s extorted, in ironic loneliness.
Watching A Movie
On a TV screen, there is film being shown, which happens to be a previous film by Li Hongqi, “Routine Holiday” from 2008, a slice of post-modernistic self-reference, where close ups of two men switch in conversation. The bottom of the TV can’t be seen, there is a bare white wall and the bottom of a picture frame is in the top right hand side of the fame. Another minimalistic but well composed shot by Li Hongqi. Grandpa, in his fine shirt, is watching this particular film, as young Zhou Zhongxin sits by him, but with the required distance of personal space between them. The young boy stares at his Grandpa, as his Grandpa watches the screen. The dialogue from the film carries on in the background. This particular film has no significance to the youngster and he asks Grandpa what he is doing. Grandpa is annoyed by the interruption,
Leave me alone, I am moved righty now.
Grandpa approves of one of Li Hongqi previous cinematic efforts! The young boy continues to stares at his Grandpa, until the doorbell rings and he is sent off to see who it is. With a nice slice of self-referential irony, Grandpa wipes a lone tear from his eye, as the young lad moves away. A woman, with a little girl, enters the room and she tells the little girl to greet Grandpa Zhou, which she does. Grandpa graciously invites the woman to sit down, who wears a light blue coat. She doesn’t remove the coat. Grandpa instructs Zhou Zhongxin to play with Li Xiaomeng, in his uncle’s room. The young girl has a light green coat on. Little Zhou Zhongxin appears, he takes Li Xiaomeng’s hand and they walk off. Grandpa and the woman, sit on a couch watching three men all sat in three comfy chairs, on the TV. The action of the film mirrors the action of this current scene, with humorous surrealism. One of the men slaps another man, twice, on the screen. The woman and Grandpa watch this scene in a detached fashion. They briefly look at each other with warm knowing smiles, and then go back to watching the film, in a detached affectation. This is a strange scene, with a brief flash of human warmth. The woman’s name is never mentioned. On the TV, the scene shifts to an overhead shot of two blind men trying to pass each other on a street, filmed with an overhead shot. They keep going the same way, and keep walking into each other, their sticks clashing. They try to figure out how to walk past one another. Another absurd scene, from a previous film, placed directly into this absurd film.
A Moment of Philosophical Contemplation
The children play by having intense conversations. The young girl observes that little Zhou Zhongxin has lost weight, such matters are of great concern to 4 or 5 or 6 years old’s in Inner Mongolia. The straight faced delivery of the young girl is inspired, with a weight of gravitas beyond her years, this scene is very funny. She next asks
What do you want to be when you grow up?
The children’s classic after the initial more adult observation. Little Zhongxin answers in absurd, but shocking fashion!
The young girl, after some thought, concludes,
You are such a pitiful kid
The expressionless delivery makes this whole scene completely surreal; the dejected answer of little Zhongxin and the witty observations of Li Hongqi. They are contemplating serious issues, even though they are about 4, 5 or 6 years old. Li Hongqi’s ability to get the kids to be motionless and emotionless is a feat in itself and adds to the ‘Alice down the rabbit hole’ vibe of this minimalistic scene. Even as children, the icy reality of life in Inner Mongolia, and the stunted family life, leads to Zhongxin ambition to be an orphan. Li Xiaomeng is correct in her observations, but she is curious all the same. They sit closely, gazing at each other, though without touching, the relationship of these two young children as close as things can get in this particular cinematic experience.
The woman comes in to say it time to go home. Li Xiaiomeng replies
I haven’t finished playing with Zhou Zhongxin, Grandma.
At least we have discerned to the relationship between the woman and the little girl. Obviously, playing to the children of Inner Mongolia is having intense conversations and witty observations.
Grandpa is sat on his sofa, in his minimalist room, with his head down, focusing on his hands, he fidgets. A delicious dish of grapes sits on the glass table, ignored! Zhou Zhongxin joins his Grandpa on the sofa, observing his fidgeting. Zhongxin asks his Grandpa why Li Xiaomeng’s grandma looked angry, when they left. Li Xiaomeng’s grandma didn’t look particularly angry, but these children are attuned to minor fluctuations of poise, look and minor changes of facial expression, discerning changes in emotion in this emotionless human landscape. This is another drop of dry wit from Li Hongqi’s script. Grandpa, in typical fashion replies to Zhongxin
Kid, mind your own business or else your Uncle will kick your butt.
Zhou Zhongxin initially shrinks into himself, but gathers his courage and stares at his Grandpa, joining in the fidgeting festival. After a long pause, the kid tries to break the saturnalia of the fidgeting by engaging in small talk
When will mommy be home?
Why aren’t you at work?
What is retired?
It means you don’t have to work anymore
Am I also retired?
What are you retired from?
Grandpa gives Zhongxin a glare, breaking away from staring at his fidgeting, as Zhongxin looks away, knowing what is coming next!
Don’t ask so many questions or your Uncle will kick your butt.
This simple scene, of a long static shot of Grandpa and Zhou Zhongxin, is both arty, amusing and another deflating experience for Zhongxin. The typical thousand questions of any growing child, is given the surreal treatment, until Grandpa gets annoyed. At least Zhongxin managed to get a little conversation going, until his butt was threatened with a kicking once again! Zhongxin’s melancholy is growing and growing. He tries to look at his Grandpa, but he has returned to contemplating his fingers and his fidgeting. Zhou Zhongxin is utterly dejected and eventually joins in the fidgeting, copying his Grandpa, staring at his hand, in a mini mirror image.
The next scene is a Li Hongqi’s masterclass of slow burning ludicrousness, with some pragmatic advice on how to get the most out of your market shopping, when the offerings are slim. The market, in this particularly town, is a sparse affair. Booming modern age China, hasn’t reached this particular backwater, with a market of only a small number of vendors, selling individual vegetables. A woman is exploring this somewhat destitute market, and she goes to a stall, selling some kind of cabbage. She is meticulously examining the cabbages on offer, picking one up after another, as she is about to strip some leaves off the vendor gets annoyed and tells her to buy it or move on. She sharply informs the vendor that she’ll take her business elsewhere, though her options are very slim. She might be the only customer in this meagre market, but the vendor is taking no nonsense from this fussy customer. He doesn’t want her money!
There are seven vendors selling various vegetables, all of them look cold and bored rigid. A couple of them wear face masks. The woman is the only customer in town at this particular moment. Inner Mongolia seems to be lacking in commerce, even customers! It’s not market reforms they need, but a market, full stop! This is the hive of excitement the bored teenage boys considered visiting early, and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. A shrewd decision! The hustle and bustle of a busy market place is not situated within this particular settlement! As the woman considers her options, an eighth vendor appears, wheeling his cart of vegetables. The woman walks around the other vendors to have a look at the goodies in the cart.
She rummages through all the cabbages, scrupulously and thoroughly checking them out. When she finds one she likes, she starts stripping the large outer leaves off. The vendor looks on impassively, hands in his pockets, wearing in his bobble woolly hat. She strips leaf after leaf off, getting to the solid heart of the vegetable plant. When she has half stripped the foliage away, she is satisfied with the heart of the cabbage. She passes it the vendor, and he weighs the cabbage with the most primitive of weighing scales in all existence, taking his time, to get the measurement correct. He announces that the price is 2.30 RMB. The lady queries why the cabbage is so expensive. The vendor pronounces
My cabbages are the cheapest on earth.
This is probably a correct statement. His mobile cabbage stall is on the front of his bicycle combined with his ancient weighing scales, demonstrates that his business margins are very tight. This fellow seems to be the father of the lad who was bullied earlier too.
They haggle over the cost, and decide on a price, where he’ll break even. This seems pointless, but business is sparse, and some money is better than no money. She announces she is 10 cents short, so he gives in and she buys the cabbage for the price she initially offered him, and he makes a loss. To add insult to injury, the woman pulls out a carrier bag to pick up the leaves she stripped off, which was more or less half the plant, making it far lighter for the weighing scales.
It would be a waste if they are not all taken, wouldn’t it.
She’s onto a good thing and the vendor is well out of pocket with this transaction, though he seems well past caring. The clever customer fleeces the merchant, and Li Hongqi’s wit is in full effect, what a bargain for the lady!
Formal Attire And The Mystery Of The Green Woolly Hat
An older woman is sat on a dark sofa, bare walls behind her. A man is messing around with a plain austere looking jacket, which he buttons right up to the collar. There is a bare wall behind him, a shabby door and what looks like a loose wire going to the door.
Is it necessary to dress like this?
The shot switches, he is looking at himself at himself in a mirror, on a plain bare wall, with a scruffy looking plug at the side of the mirror. The man looks smart but very ascetic, looking like something from China’s stern recent past. A female voice replies
It’s a government office we are going to tomorrow. You must be dressed in formal attire.
As the older woman sits on the couch, and the middle aged man looks at himself in the mirror, another woman is rummaging around in an absolutely massive wall cabinet which dominates the other wall. This is an ostentatious item in a room with nothing much in it. The woman is looking for her ‘going out’ dress, and when she thinks she has found it, something is amiss. The green ‘going out’ dress seems to be nothing more than a green cloth. The woman angrily shouts for Dong Jinfeng! It is the young teenage girl who made the woolly hat for Zhou, the mystery deepens! Her Mother wants to know where her green woolly pants are. Jinfeng says she doesn’t know, with a smirk on her face. Her Mother is having none of this and demands that she spit out the truth!
Your Uncle brought these back for me from a faraway place.
The mystery of the green woolly hats source material is discovered! This is a serious misdemeanour by the teenage girl, using the cloth from an important and sentimental piece of clothing! It discerns the possible depth of her affection for Zhou Zhixin. Her mother is furious.
There is close up of the old woman, she sits impassively throughout this controversy. It seems as she is not in the room, as the parents get into a tangle with their teenage daughter.
Another Arty Interlude
It is late twilight and the night is setting in. Li Hongqi, with his cinematographer, Qin Yurui, who absurdly, is Li Hongqi under a pseudonym (absurdism rules in this film), creates another long beautiful static shot of the urban landscape, as it is turning dark. The lights are on in some of these little box-like apartments, but many are in darkness. The tattered looking Modernist buildings have a desolate splendour. People move around in these rooms, though the activities are unclear. There are several people in some rooms, a single individual in others. A man walks alongside the buildings, on the snow covered road, hands in pockets. The crazy nursery rhyme music, by The Top Floor Circus, plays once again, that reaches into its pre-language style chorus.
The Improvised Windmill
Zhou Zhixin is back in bed, snoring, wrapped in his green duvet. Li Hongqi pictures him in a close up with an improvised paper windmill just below his mouth. The windmill sail is made of paper, stuck on the end of a cigarette. As Zhixin snores, he blows air in his sleep, thus turning the windmill. Zhou Zhongxin, in a close up, holds the windmill over his Uncle’s mouth, he looks his usual emotionless self. This is the height of delight! Zhou Zhixin blowing a homemade paper windmill with his snores! Li Hongqi pans out to a shot of all the room with Zhou Zhixin in bed, Zhou Zhongxin sat on the edge, with his toy windmill and the unnamed studious teenager, ‘hanging out’, reading his book.
Zhou Zhongxin having fun?
This whole scene is marvellously ludicrous. The pinnacle of excitement and action is a snore blowing an improvised windmill! The studious teen decides he wants to ‘play’ and joins in on the fun. He holds the windmill over the snoring Zhou Zhixin’s visage! Zhou Zhixin wakens and doesn’t seem at all surprised. This is a bonkers scene.
Happiness Is A Picture
Grandpa is on his sofa, looking at a garish wedding picture on the wall. Two snaps of the happy pretty couple, all dressed in white, are surrounded by a tasteless cloud of swirling pink. Zhou Zhongxin enters and sits at the very edge of the sofa, an even bigger distance away from Grandpa. He sits in front of the luscious bowl of grapes that no one touches throughout the film. Little Zhongxin looks at his Grandpa, then he looks at the picture, then returns his gaze back to his elderly antagonist.
Grandpa, why are Mum and Dad dressed up like this and looking at us like that?
Because they felt happy
Grandpa briefly engages in eye contact with Zhongxin, before looking away and out of the window, his usual response after briefly giving his Grandson a morsel of attention.
Zhongxin considers the picture intently, but his conclusions are not forthcoming. A picture demonstrating happiness seems completely baffling to our downhearted young hero.
The Controversial Green Woolly Hat
Zhou Zhixin and the studious teen, in their thick coats, walk out into the snow covered daylight. Zhou Zhixin feels the cold on his head, and goes back inside, as the studious teen with his hoody up waits staring at his trainers. The scene switches to the middle aged couple walking along the sea of doors that don’t seem to open to anywhere in particular, with the Modernistic apartments rearing their heads in the background. As they are about to leave the frame, their teenage daughter Dong Jinfeng walks into the frame. She is walking behind them from a large distance. A chilly wind blows. This is another wonderful shot of icy dislocation by Li Hongqi, packed with gloomy wit. Zhou Zhixin now returns to his philosophical friend, who is frozen, like a statue. He leaves his slab like apartment block into the snow. He is now wearing his green woolly hat that his girlfriend made for him. He’s finally gave this fine piece of warm head-ware the seal of approval, but his studious friend witty notices
Isn’t that your Father-in-law and Mother-in-law?
The middle aged couple, approach the two teenagers, with their daughter skulking on behind them. A nice big ugly apartment block is offset to the side of the frame, as the two frozen teens await destiny! The Mother gives the teenage girl a kick up the backside, as she walks towards the lads and her parents stop and wait. Dong Jinfeng walks up the Zhou Zhixin and faces him.
The scene switches to five chairs, in varying styles, against a wall, with another slab of apartments behind the wall. A myriad of doors and shabby buildings run off into the distance. Yet another beautiful icy frame, shot by Li Hongqi, urban wretchedness in the snow. The three other teenagers turn up; the tough barbarian, the teen in the red coat and the tall teen, who is just hanging around, as yet. As they gather, Dong Jinfeng walks by, carrying the green woolly hat, her parents following behind! The lads watch the family leave. Her token of affection for Zhou Zhixin has turned into a family controversy! Another deadpan moment from Li Hongqi; all the effort the girl has put into making the hat for Zhou Zhixin, is for nothing. When he wears it for the first time, disaster! She has to retrieve the hat, due to her mother’s fury. Dong Jinfeng destroyed her mother’s going out outfit, to make it! Li Hongqi exploration of ridiculousness in the everyday is a joy to behold.
As the family leaves the frame, Zhou Zhixin and his intellectual pal walk to meet the three other teenage lads. There are now five teenagers hanging around, hands in pockets, the five chairs in the background. Zhou Zhixin is without his woolly hat, rosy cheeked in the cold. The lad in the red coat pipes up
What are we going to do today?
Li Hongqi switches shot of the teenagers all looking in their varying states of world-weariness, freezing in the cold. They all look numb. Zhou Zhixin puts his foot down!
Why you looking at me, I ain’t your priest.
The prophet throws off his shackles, and tells them to look for answers elsewhere. The three lads all look at the floor, crestfallen. The tough looking teen decides to speak his philosophical mind.
What on earth is going on? One day after another, it seems as if life never ends.
This is a remarkable statement. Life is so is mind numbingly boring that the thought that life will end, seems a pleasure. The meanest looking teenager is very pessimistic about the reality of life. The studious teenager is perplexed by this statement. Even with his emotionless affectation, he decides to challenge the tough teenager.
You, are you pissed with life?
For the first time, a little morsel of emotion starts to seep through. The mean looking teen is unhappy with this question.
Did you say I’m pissed with life?
I didn’t say you’re pissed with life.
Did he just say that I’m pissed with life?
The lad in the red coat, obviously not paying too much attention, wryly observes.
I heard you both say pissed, but I have no idea which of you is really pissed with life.
The studious teenager, confounded, decides to argue his point a little more. At this point Zhou Zhixin starts to walk to the five random chairs by the uninviting wall. He’ll listen to the proceedings sat down!
The way I heard you talking just now, it sounds like you’re pissed with life,so I asked you if you’re pissed with your life. But I never said that you’re pissed with your life.
The tough teenager prompted this ridiculously circular argument with his moment of quiet despondent introspection, but with supreme hypocritical irony he decides,
Your wordiness makes me more and more pissed!
The studious teen has had enough.
Loaboa, I think it is over between you and me. From now on, we’re finished.
We finally discover the tough teenager’s name, Loaboa! He is easy about the falling out and he will leave it up to him. We still don’t know the studious teenager’s name! This is a monumentally preposterous argument about nothing in particular, apart from their pissed-off-ness, which not one of them will admit to directly, only through moments of sad poetry. This is a heightened surreal version with which teenagers fall in, then out, then probably back in again, with friendship. The studious teen retorts
Since we were once friends, let me offer you a piece of advice: You’re a motherfucker indeed!
That is one incendiary piece of advice. As Zhou Zhixin sits in his chair, the four other teenagers, stand looking at each other, freezing in the cold. The prophet Zhou Zhixin decides to intervene,
Come here, sit down and take your time arguing, it’s still early don’t rush to conclusions.
The rest of them skulk towards the chairs. For Zhou Zhixin, this is wonderful, finally a bit of controversy, something to talk about!
The mysterious tall teenager stands looking at the posse of friends, as they sit down. We finally get to know his name too, Laowu. They ask him to sit with them. We now get to peek into the life of this mysterious teenager, he replies
You guys sit. I want to find Zhu Xiaoling, and have a heart-to-heart talk with her one more time.
It seems our tall teen is the lover of this bunch of lads. He wonders off. The four of them sit sullen in the urban snow-scape, with an indistinct announcement, drifting across the air, on repeat!
The Government Department
Dong Jinfeng’s Mother and Father are sat in a drab office, expressionless. Roughly painted walls stand behind them, half white, half green. The line separating the two colours is slapdash and roughly decorated. The Father wears his austere suit and the mother is plainly dressed in her winter coat. A well-presented lady is scanning the paperwork of their appointment, wearing her thin framed spectacles. She wears black, but her clothes are fashionable, in the Western sense. She has finely styled hair; she looks like a well-dressed career woman, in any western style corporation. Unfortunately, the room she works within is not up the standard of her fine attire, it is poorly painted and the doors are well past their best. A massive cabinet, filled with folder, sits behind her. She may dress in black, but she seems completely out of place in this austere and dull nirvana. Li Hongqi side view framing of the office accentuates the run down nature of the office, with its poor colour co-ordinations. Li Hongqi wittily observes that the power of the state is almost as makeshift as the rest of this decaying town, apart from the new breed of corporate style government worker. As she reviews the case notes, an elderly couple enters the room. The old man is extremely hunched over, wearing his old style peasant cap. Li Hongqi now drops his cliff hanger for this scene, when the old man asks
Excuse me, is this where the divorce papers are filed?
The government official observes that the department sign is written on the door. Li Hongqi again demonstrates his sad wit when the old man replies
Sorry, comrade, we’re illiterate.
The metropolitan official forgets that she is working in run down backwater, with plenty of elderly illiterate peasants. Dong Jinfeng’s father invites them in, informing them that this is the place they are looking for. It looks like Dong Jinfeng’s parents big formal day, is to get a divorce! Li Hongqi piles up the sad ironies. They are both dressed in plain formal attire and the official dresses in black, to point out the death of their marriage. The elderly couple sit on the couch, at each end, with plenty of personal space between them. Li Hongqi dry observations of relationship breakdown, add another unhappy dimension to this decrepit town; the mature and elderly are getting divorced in droves. The official asks them if they need any more time to think it over, Dong Jinfeng’s Mother says there is no need. She asks the man, and he drolly replies,
Anything she says.
She gives them the paperwork and they leave. She moves onto the next elderly couple. This is yet another witty, but very downhearted scene. The aging population of the town seems to be getting divorced. A metropolitan official organises the divorces quickly and efficiently, without any fuss, even in this rundown office. No labyrinthine bureaucratic process to fulfil here, just a ‘are you sure?’ and it is done! This is clever, unexpected and subtle satire. The government doesn’t interfere in such matters, but facilitates the breakdown of the family efficiently and life goes on.
Between two brick walls, and the never ended series of doors going nowhere, two young lovers are discussing their future. The shabby urban landscape is the background to this teenage tryst, the hot spot for romantic interludes. The derelict background demonstrates Li Hongqi’s sly humour. This is awkward love among ripped off posters, bricks and snow. Our tall teenage hero Laowu needs to clear the air with girlfriend, who is dressed in thick winter clothing, with a striking stripy bobbly woollen hat. For a pair of teenager lovers, there is a respectful distance between them; both of them stand like statues. Laowu, with his hands in his pockets, pleads with his love not to break up with him, and he wants to know why she wants to leave him. With pragmatic logic she asserts
I am still young, teenage love will affect my study.
This young lady has decided that love is a distraction and she needs to knuckle down to getting her grades. As this is a Li Hongqi film, nothing is as it seems. Laowu coolly and cynically dissects her claim,
How could it? We’ve been classmates for almost eight years now and you’ve taken last place in every test. In my memory, nothing can affect your record. It is almost unbeatable. Honestly, you’re average looking and stupid. It’s impossible that anyone besides me could ever like you.It’s best if you’re dead set on being with me.
Heartfelt declarations of love are not for Laowu, only a strategy of brutal honesty. He decides this is the best tactic to stop his girlfriend from leaving him! The young woman, even in this severe town, is somewhat taken aback.
Laowu, can’t you say something to make people more comfortable?
What’s the use in saying nice things? It’s not my dream to be a boot-licker.
What is your dream?
My dream is that in the near future we live together.
And then have a child, raise him up, let him find love to spend his days with. Then he’ll have a child, and the grandchild will have a child, it will be the endless fruit of my loins.
In hilarious fashion his young lady asks,
The endless fruit of your loins? Won’t you be tired?
After a long pause, with a black hen pecking around in the background and litter blowing in the wind,
Why would I be tired?
This is deadpan nirvana, where absurdity, traditional ideas of the family and crazed honesty collide for comical effect. All the way through the dialogue, the mysterious fireworks are going off, though we can never see them. The town is deserted; whatever is happening, it is elsewhere.
The Chairs, In the Snow, Against A Wall
The fireworks are firing away in the background somewhere, as Zhou Zhixin lounges on his chair, with his coat hood up. He is rosy cheeked, his hands in the coat’s pockets. Laoboa is sat next to his pal in the red coat, both with their hands in their coat pockets, as it starts to snow. The teenager in the red coat is looking up. The snow is blowing quite briskly, so it must be quite windy. Loaboa stares off into the distance, sat in the freezing cold. The red coated youth suddenly asks
Why is the sky so empty?
Wittily Loaboa puts the back on his hand on his forehead, as if to check his temperature, and asks if he is OK. The strange background noise now switches to a vocal motif, as if somebody is making an announcement, on constant repeat, in the distance. The red coated teen is completely distracted by his mediation on the sky. The studious teen is sat slouched in his chair next to Zhou Zhixin, looking completely disinterested. The four of them sit on the chairs, in the snow, freezing. Li Hongqi lingers on the four lads, as they sit there bored out of their minds, freezing in the wind and snow. Laowu returns and he is surprised that they are still sat in the chairs, in the cold. Loaboa informs him that they are waiting for him,
Why wait for me?
He ignores the empty chair and perches on the arm of the chair that the red coated boy is sat on. Loaboa asks if he has resolved his issues with Zhu Xiaoling, which he says he has. Loaboa wonders why they are always breaking up. Laowu explains
It’s not me who always breaks up with her it’s her who always breaks up with me. More or less once a month, she dumps me. I’ve basically become her menstrual pad.
Laowu’s romantic challenges are of great importance to the group, and it is something they all can contemplate. The mysterious studious teen offers a different strategy,
I think maybe you’ve spoiled Zhu Xiaoling. If you take the initiative for once and propose to break up, she will beg to get back together and never again say another word about breaking up.
Loawu is not certain that such a tactic would work
What if she doesn’t beg me?
The boys don’t have an answer to that conundrum, so Loawu asks his friends if they can guess why she broke up with him today. Loaboa has no idea. The red coated youth cynically observes,
No clue. I don’t get what’s inside your girl Zhu Xiaoling’s mind.
After some sardonic remarks from the boys, he tells them,
She said that love can affect her schoolwork. I never thought my Xiaoling, not only has a pure heart, but is also a master of humour.
Laowu’s bemused sarcasm doesn’t ring true with the tough teen Loabao, who is more philosophical about her motivation. Issues of the heart are serious business.
Laowu, you’ve misunderstood. Your Xiaoling is not playing you. In the process of you two being together, your Xiaoling has realised the dangers of teenage love.
Laoboa maybe rough and tough, but he has the heart of a poet. Not to be outdone, the scholarly teenager decides to give his piece of advice to Laowu,
You underestimate Zhu Xiaoling last place won’t get in the way of this little chick.
Laoboa’s annoyance with the scholar and his own shrewd wit comes into play, with a clever retort to his new adversary.
What do you know? You’ve never been last place in any test.
The wannabe academic, is not short of opinion and insults when dealing with Laoboa. He is fearless in his words, arrogantly dismissing his battle hardened rival.
I’ve already cut ties with you. From now on, when I am talking, shut your mouth.
On that note, the firework sounds restart and the studious teen walks off to get something to eat.
School is restarting the next day, so the red coated scallywag asks Loaboa if he’s done his winter vacation homework. He’ll let him copy his work, if he hasn’t. Loaboa decides otherwise,
Nah, I can’t get by cheating my whole life.
So what do you plan to do? Our teacher is a maniac, if you mess up, you’ll be the one who cleans the girl’s toilet for six months.
Loaboa considers not bothering with school at all, but Laowu advises,
You may hide in the beginning, but you can’t escape in the end.
Loaboa cynicism’s creeps in to the conversation, as well as his despair.
I won’t go to school anymore. Studying is useless. There’s nothing to learn.
If I continue muddling along at school, I fear I will cease to exist.
Loaboa’s sad inner poetry is forcing its way to the surface again. For the first time in this long, static scene, Zhou Zhixin joins in the conversation. The prophet is amazed at Loaboa’s melancholy
Loaboa I always thought you were a barbarian. I never thought you could be so sensitive.
Laowu finds it remarkable the Laoboa is considering quitting school. He observes that his girlfriend Xiaoling still goes to school, even though she comes last in all the tests. Laoboa explains,
I am different from your Zhu Xiaoling. She’s a girl. Even when she finishes school and can’t recognise the ten Arabic numerals, you will still marry her and take care of her. But, Laowu, would you marry me?
Laowu humorously replies
For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health
In sadness and in happiness, to love and to cherish, until death do us part?
Zhou Zhixin with an ounce of pragmatism asks
If you don’t study, what will you do?
Loaboa hilariously switches from being an existentialist into a patriotic communist when he pronounces,
Contribute to the struggle to build socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Zhou Zhixin is having none of that and rather cruelly dissects his bogus declaration.
Don’t poke fun at me. If you enter society with your mental outlook, I’m afraid you will only be a burden on our country.
All the boys decide to go home, as it is getting dark, apart from the red coated youth. He stays to continue looking at the sky, wondering at its emptiness. The bizarre nursery rhyme style song starts once again as he looks up into nothing! Eventually he leaves. There are five empty chairs in the snow, against a wall.
This is a long static scene, with the occasional coming and going of the teenagers. They all sit on their chairs, discussing important issues for teenagers, love, the future, with the ennui occasionally rising to a near argument. Everyone has their say, and then they go home. To add to the surreal nature of the scene, the backdrop is a brick wall, as it snows and they’re all freezing. The conditions might not be ideal but they are doing something, sat down! They debate their confusions, and more likely, the disappointments that their future lives will hold. This is a humorous scene shot through with poetry and great sadness. Li Hongqi depressive brand of comedy is used to great effect against the wasteland of a brick wall and snow. The mysterious background noises enhance the strange nature of the scene.
Back With Grandpa
The room is draped in shade, with Grandpa laid out on the sofa, a lone shaft of light shines on his face. It must be the full light of day, but Grandpa fancies a nap. Zhou Zhongxin is sat perched on the edge of the couch, staring at his Grandpa. The bowl of grapes is still sat on the clear glass table, untouched. Zhongxin is completely perturbed, he looks around the room and decides to put his coat on and struggles to pull up the zip. Zhongxin is a young boy, so Li Hongqi directs the youngster to struggle with this everyday piece of clothing. This wrestling match is a skill all children have to go through, as they learn how to deal with the everyday action of putting their clothing on. The nursery rhyme motif starts playing in the background as he struggles. He then meticulously prepares to put his woolly hat on. This whole sequence exaggerates the rituals of getting dressed, though this is a genuine task for young children or the ill, elderly or disabled. The ritual of clothing is something that Li Hongqi focuses his static camera upon, it is the everyday poetry of living. All the while Grandpa doesn’t move, fast asleep on the sofa. Li Hongqi keeps the shot going, with Grandpa asleep on the sofa, oblivious to Zhongxin.
Politics Part Two
Li Hongqi now returns to a replay of the whole bullying sequence with the exaggerated ritual coercion. The awkward teenager, with his big headwear; the bully in his sports causal gear, they go about their strange abstract business. The slapping, the handover of cash and the flourish with which the bully examines the money and places it in his wallet; the whole sequence is repeated, though the injured party says he has less money this time! The urban wasteland in the background makes this sequence even more detestable. The only difference between this sequence and the previous scene is the nature of the interloper into this particular drama of domination. Zhou Zhongxin, the young boy, stumbles upon this example of hierarchy. The switch of the camera angle by Li Hongqi displays the two teenagers dwarfed by the never ending series of doors, and the big ugly modernistic structures with masses of windows in various states of dusty neglect. The whole act of coercion seems ridiculous in this rundown environment, but human beings do what human beings do, whether it is in hell or paradise. The quest for domination is pathological in our species, no matter how absurd. Zhou Zhongxin initially observes the bully in action, with some curiosity. He seizes the hat off the skinny teen, to extort any money that might be hid there. The bully throws the hat on the ground in contempt, just as the bullied lad’s father threw the bullies wallet down in his contempt. The young boy, half the size of the two teenagers, walks up to them and they all stare at one another. Zhou Zhongxin is utterly fearless, eyeballing the bully. The bully walks away. Zhou Zhongxin cast his critical eye over the bullied boy, whose shoulders and posture are slouched. After a while, Zhou Zhongxin wonders off.
Zhou Zhongxin walks past a very dilapidated building, the forever doors, stretching off into the distance, at the side of the building. Doors going nowhere are lingered upon throughout the film; lots of doors, but no answers. Out of a window, covered with a metal grills, that looks like a prison cell, Zhongxin’s little friend, Li Xiaomeng, shouts for him, as he is walking by. Zhongxin asks her
Why don’t you sleep through lunch break?
I can’t sleep its insomnia. Where are you going?
I must go find a place where I can be an orphan.
Do you have an address for that place?
No, but if I can go far enough, I know I can find it.
You said you want to be an orphan when you grow up. You haven’t grown up yet.
I can’t wait no more. I must become an orphan as soon as possible.
So if I want to play with you, I won’t be able to find you ever again?
We can be orphan together.
This little scene is surreal, desolate, heart-breaking and bizarrely, has a dry humour. The way the children engage in this conversation is matter of fact without emotion. The little girl’s head pokes through the metal bars, like she’s in prison. Behind Zhou Zhongxin is a gravel wasteland that seems to stretch out into infinity. The way Li Hongqi orchestrates these camera shots, accentuate the alienation, but also ramps up the absurdity of it all. The idea that the only ambition in the life for these children is to become an orphan is desperately sad. Li Hongqi’s pessimism is driven home through his dry deadpan dialogue, delivered so seriously by the amateur child actors. His direction of the children is both subtle and surreal.
A lone teenager is stretched out on his desk asleep, in a generic class, in a generic school, somewhere in Inner Mongolia. Sports casual wear seems to be the choice in uniforms. The school bell rings and the classroom fills up with students. No one talks; they just arrive and sit at their desks. All the various teenagers, featured throughout the film, sit in the classroom; though it looks like Loaboa has kept his word and hasn’t bothered turning up to the class. Li Hongqi switches the camera shot to the front of the classroom, to the black board, teacher’s desk, with the backs of the students to the camera. A teacher walks in the room and the students all stand up, they make some sort of greeting and then they all sit down. The teacher puts a massive wad of papers on the desk and starts messing around with the wad, putting his papers into piles, flicking through pages of paper, mentioning that this biology class will be studying apomictic molluscs! His shuffling and flicking of his papers makes half of them fall off the desk. It turns out the teacher is Louwu’s dad, who’s forgotten his medicine again. He picks up his papers, puts them in some sort of order and starts flicking through them again. He decides to dash the whole pile of them on the floor, and launches into his theories of life!
… the truth is that you know nothing,
Not even who you are, where you are from, and where you are going.
And the textbook incessantly tells you that you are the master of the world…
But the truth is that you own nothing, except your own selfishness
Your arrogance, your stupidity, and your greediness. You will end in nothing.
Children, in the history of human society…
…The slightest bit of true knowledge about ourselves or the world we live in.
Every library and every mind around the world only increase human stupidity.
At this very moment, a school administrator enters the class to tell teacher Wu that he is in the wrong classroom, he should be next door! His amazing rant is undercut by being in the wrong room, as he is demonstrating his own philosophy. Throughout his passionate discourse on nihilism, the students look completely bored. They already know what the teacher is saying is self-evident from their own lives. Li Hongqi, throughout “Winter Vacation”, demonstrates the traps the characters are ensnared in, with his show not tell simplicity. Li Hongqi has kept the dialogue concise and absurd, but he can’t resist giving the unbalanced teacher a crazed speech, giving it all with both barrels, to the ennui dosed teenagers. The whole scene is hilariously unhinged, over the top, but apt.
The deranged teacher leaves the room and the correct teacher takes his place, though she stays by the door, until he has left. The ritual of greeting the teacher is gone over once more and she starts the lesson by writing in English on the blackboard
‘How to be a useful person for society?’
This is statement that transforms into a question, a nice little quirk from Li Hongqi in his cynical script. Li Hongqi now lingers on the classroom full of teenage children, all looking utterly uninterested, with random pupils fidgeting. The silence is broken by extremely loud music playing over a long static shot of the ennui fatigued pupils, as the singer, Zuoxiao Zuzhou, screams. A noisy scream into nothingness, as these the world weary kids have little to look forward to. This is a witty but bleak ending to this fine piece of cinema.
“I don’t intentionally express the political dynamics of China because politics isn’t this world’s fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is humanity.”
Li Hongqi’s above quote perfectly encapsulates his pessimism and “Winter Vacation” universalises this problem with its strange rituals of going nowhere in particular. No matter what knowledge, power, art, science etc… humanity may have moved forward, but the problems that human beings faced in the Bronze Age are still the same faced today, greed, cruelty, inequality, power, hierarchy, war, famine, disease. It doesn’t matter what the political system is, entropy always creeps in. It seems to be the nature of human beings to keep constantly making a mess of matters and then trying rebuild, until the next big mess. As a species we are developing cleverer technologies and we are more knowledgeable about the nature of reality, but it never seems to counteract our inherent stupidity. Li Hongqi deals with such issues in his deadpan humourous way, and ritualises the extremes of human behaviour in quirky metaphors. Ironically, there is very little real nastiness or gut wrenching cruelty or violence. He extends his metaphors through the theatrics of bullying, the fracture of the family, the sadness of children, the lack of ambition and the boredom of teenagers. He doesn’t forego the human touches though; little human acts of kindness and affection try to resist the tide of the metaphorical static chaos. Static chaos could be a good way to describe Li Hongqi’s oeuvre.
Li Hongqi direction of children is superb, considering that the majority of the cast are non-professional actors. In terms of his style, he likes long static shots; with some close ups of the ennui induced. Information on the actors is somewhat unclear, but, as an ensemble, the cast is superb. Bai Junjie, Zhang Naqi, Bai Jinfeng, Xie Ying, Wang Hui, Bao Lei, Bai Xiaohong, Zhi Feng, Wu Guoxiong, Jiang Chao,Shao Meiqi and Yao Lang do a magnificent job acting in this strange and wonderful film. The micromanagement of the acting by Li Hongqi is both abstract, and emotionally restrained, but hints at inner tension. The characters use blasé wit, when the moment is ripe. It is like a release of inner anxiety, through jokes.
In terms of art direction and overall design, Qin Yurui (Li Honqi’s pseudonym) and Yi Xiaodong provide the movie with a masterclass in meticulous shabbiness, or perfectly placed internal décor, depending on the character. This is an art film, so the art direction is superb. The long static shots portray scruffiness as a thing of beauty, Baudelaire style. The particulars of the dishevelled setting are precisely detailed, in both internal and external shots, by Qin Yurui (Li Honqi’s pseudonym).
“Winter Vacation” is an existential absurdist comedy, both hilarious and extremely sad. Li Hongqi’s vision of the world will not be to everyone’s taste, but to those interested in a pessimistic but witty vision of human nature, and our relation to the world, should take a look at “Winter Vacation”. The movie is both beautiful and grubby, with clever but desperate dialogue.