Anybody who ever grew up in a small town far removed from the hegemonic influences of the big city will vouch for their bizarrely distinctive habits and ecosystems. Like fingerprints dotted across the map the odds of ever visiting two identical enclaves are remote, for beyond the bricks and below the surfaces are the institutionalised personalities which give each print their own idiosyncratic identities. For this very reason there is something more pleasurable in passing through than to linger within their reaches; you’ll either have judgement passed against you by the townsfolk or absorb enough of every characteristic to simply become part of the architectural furniture. Welcome, then, to “Changfeng Town”, Wang Jing’s personal love letter to nostalgia, to the myriad of quirky personalities she’d breathe the same air with during her youth, and to growing up among an indisputable resistance to change and its inevitable backlash.
“Changfeng Town” is screening at Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema
Here lies a town where the word eccentric is ballooned to a whole new level of, well, weird: children are pleasantly referred by their cruelly unpleasant monikers, there is a distinctive sound of flowers blossoming, and missing billiard balls is the biggest upset to afflict the close-minded inhabitants. Told through a series of chapters which span several summer months through intertwining narratives, the titular town is being awoken by a series of strange events culminating in a torrential rainstorm and a shocking moment of utter torment which jolts the town to its core. People come and go – in more ways than one – rattling the inhabitants to bemoan changes and feel a sense of loss all while their sleepy surroundings are strangely suffering an infestation of mice.
Against this wonderfully imaginative backdrop Wang Jing weaves the numerous yet no less offbeat lives of her characters – young and old, male and female – to meet at numerous junctions. There’s the layabout Redhead, who spends his time hanging around the much younger Scabby and his friends whilst failing to win the affections of Cai Xia, herself smitten with the journalist Guang, who dreams of having his poetry published. Handyman Xi Shan travels around in a blue truck with Mao Mao, performing odd jobs for those who require them. Personified to great effect among the entire cast – though specifically the women at the sewing shop and the men at the billiards bar – is that most common by-product of small-town syndrome: hearsay. In Changfeng gossip is traded as if it were currency, and the slightest curiosity can cast a well-standing citizen among the outsiders.
The level of world-building here in “Changfeng Town” is by all means extraordinary, more so because the film lives in the heart of its children: its youthful innocence transforms the town’s sleepiness into a place of whimsy especially in its first hour, where individual personalities come alive in full, glorious colour. So carefree is it that, even though rooted in a timeless reminiscence (the older Scabby, who is narrating, confesses he will never be as happy as he was here), time bears no relevance and is simply an afterthought. But as the film progresses, with each narrative coalescing, there is this unmistakable sense of impending, inescapable ennui, the kind that comes with growing up, and it leaves us aching, numb even. Ironically, it is a welcoming touch in this otherworldly place where nothing makes complete sense. And yet, even during such a paradigmatic shift, the film remains wholesome, largely in part to the cast’s exuberance in their roles and providing this town with its lifeblood.
Above this intoxicating yearning for an unachievable past however, “Changfeng Town” is a beautiful film in and of itself. Wang Zixuan’s eye-popping cinematography captures that long-lost innocence with wide-eyed wonder. Supplanting sentimentality for playfulness goes so far as to remove this microcosm from the real world altogether; given how cinema and music also play crucial (and sometimes non-diagetical) roles in not just the heartbeat of the town but of the film itself, we are truly transported back to a simpler, more jubilant time. Much like those summer breaks as kids, this picture is long and slow but never to its detriment; coupled with its non-linear narrative everyone is free to carry out their necessary parts gearing up towards the town’s climax.
Over a decade has passed since Wang Jing emerged with her debut film “Crossroads”, and with only a segment in the 2011’s anthology film “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner” added to her credits-list since then, “Changfeng Town” has definitely been a long time coming yet unmistakably worth the wait. Here she has accomplished two things: she has perfectly captured the temporal geography and psychogeography of small-town existence, and she harnessed the triggering essence of nostalgia without resorting to social realist tropes or tricks. Ultimately though it is joy to watch and reminds us why cinema is one of the greatest simple pleasures in life to be experienced both in our youth and with our debatable maturity.