Traditional values confronted with inevitable transformations connected with the changing world and the needs of the new generation is a recurring theme of discourse among the many nations undergoing quick development and modernization. Cinema reflects its importance, offering different artistic realizations, in which the theme is processed through many prisms. “Best Director” (Zui Jia Dao Yan) by the debutant Xian Zhang is the latest refreshingly light and humorous addition. This black and white film screened recently in the Free Spirit competition section of the 35. Warsaw Film Festival.
Xian Zhang chose the satire as his artistic tool. Using the handy form of a black comedy, he shares bitterly apt observations of his coevals’ ills. He builds the narrative frame around Chinese wedding celebrations and customs, which are the pretext to reflect on the generational clash.
Zhang and Shanni make a fine match. They are not only in love with each other but also they have both achieved success in their fancy metro lives: Zhang made a name for himself as a director, and Shanni is a fashion photographer. They want to tie the knot, so they travel to the provincial town, where the future groom’s family live. Wanting to keep everything a low-key affair, Shanni and Zhang feel no tension. All they need is just a simple ceremony and a modest dinner for their nearest and dearest. Afterwards, the newlyweds want to set off on a journey. But as soon as Zhang and Shanni reach the destination, a pile of problems arises.
To put it mildly, groom’s folks are not happy with the plan. Zhang’s mother and father question everything, starting from the date, that wasn’t picked by an astrologist, and ending with lack of proper pompous bash. When Shanni’s family joins the proceedings, the mess gets only bigger. Now both sides confront their expectations, especially as to the financial side of undertakings, and skirmishes like “we thought people from the north/south are more generous” happen. What should be a festive, joyful celebration, becomes an unbearable burden. Zhang and Shani, at first determined to do things in their way, bit by bit surrender to sequential parental wishes. What adds to the fire is the presence of Zhang’s ex-flame and a local tv crew, for which the wedding of a locally born celebrity is a perfect scoop.
The director tells a story of a big fat wedding à rebours, mocking its pop-cultural lavish and idyllic vision. He strips it off any romanticism and turns it into spiteful social satire, with additional comments on family relations and putting on the brave face, when you are on the verge of outburst. But on the occasion he also takes the stand against times of reality TV type of shows and presents media that are hard to take seriously. Beneath the surface of farcical situations, the director shows the harsh reality of compromises, which are accepted not in the name of preserving tradition, but for the sake of sanity.
Xian Zhang plays with form. Sometimes the camerawork resembles the video recording documenting family celebrations, sometimes frames are artistically crafted and become kind of subtle punchline to the plot. There is a scene, when Zhang talks with his past sweetheart. We can’t see them, only overhear the conversation, while the couple is behind the large white pillar situated in the center of the frame. And suddenly two passer-byes emerge from behind the column, carrying dark umbrellas, and leave symmetrically in opposite directions. In the end of the film there’s an epilogue in color, which we may read as an alternative or reinterpretation of a story.
The director builds his movie with little anecdotes, thus non-obvious humor comes from depicting foibles and absurdities of life and confronting characters with their ambitions, wishes and plans. One of my favorite scenes is when Shanni, irritated by the conventional approach of a wedding photographer, takes over the camera and directs him and her fiancée to strike poses, as if they were the happy couple.
Overall, “Best Director” is a smart and amusing debut, skilfully linking entertaining values with a social commentary, and surprising with its universal output.