In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Jeremy Elphick looks at film that falls outside of the Letterboxd database, Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Bastards.
Date Watched: 10 May, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 9
Beijing Bastards is a fascinating piece of cinema that negotiates a generational (and political) shift in the Chinese cinematic sphere. Director Zhang Yuan is one of the pioneering members of the Sixth Generation of filmmakers, with Beijing Bastards notable for its status as one of the first Chinese films produced independently of the state funding apparatus. It’s also important to view this independence as a particularly multi-faceted concept in this context. It didn’t just refer to its production, but simultaneously connoted the intrinsic ideologies present within the movement. Beijing Bastards centres around a series of characters that reflect this independent movement in China: Karzi and his pregnant girlfriend Maomao, Daqing and ‘Yellow’, and Cui Jian, the latter playing a character not dissimilar from his role in the country at the time of filming – a rockstar.
The film opens with a montage cutting between Karzi arguing with Maomao about an abortion while interspersed with Cui Jian performing onstage, rain overlaid on top. It’s quickly established that the film is largely dramatic, and largely impressionistic, relying on the soundtrack and careful cinematography to instruct and prompt a perception of the film as concerned with ennui and displacement over a straight narrative from the get go. “I don’t love you anymore, but I don’t hate you either,” Cui howls, singing “damn you, damn you” in a lovelorn stupor before cutting to a shot of slow-moving cars in the rain at night, their headlights illuminating a few sections of the screen. In fact, the first seven minutes of the film vamp on this melodramatic ballad of being lost, in love, somewhere in the night. It’s all very beautiful and reflects a generation of filmmaking in China that was more contemporary, more obsessed with impermanent beauty, and markedly separate from the generation that preceded them.
Despite being a superstar in China at the time, Cui Jian is often shown in the film rehearsing, playing to an empty room – or at least, without an audience shown on screen. At times, the film imitates the performance, targeting no audience in particular, reflecting onto itself. It’s a film about a generation for a generation, and it feels almost voyeuristic watching Beijing Bastards in Australia in the 21st century. It’s a film that has an intimacy with itself, but puts out a certain coldness, indifference and incoherence to the modern viewer. Cui Jian is often referred to as “China’s first rock star”, but his music is more complex than this. Most of the songs on the soundtrack for the film extend beyond the eight minute mark, most of them more similar to the more abstract era of The Cure than U2. They’ve got a sense of melancholy and brooding that bypasses most generic rock, and it’s a soundtrack that really shapes the film’s atmosphere. Cui’s soundtrack mirrors the anxieties and thoughts of the characters in the film in a careful and constant way. It’s a presence the film would fall apart without.
From very early on, it’s clear that this is an overtly impressionistic venture. Those aforementioned shots of the rain– people walking through it, cars pushing on, shots of the sky – they sort of frame the entire film. It’s enveloped in this sense of surrealistic, nature-driven loneliness. The characters are either chasing someone in vain or running away from another, fading into the fog. When Karzi wakes up one morning, he’s greeted by his mother castigating him: “You’re never in bed before 3 or 4AM. It’s the same every night. You’ll ruin your health”. His response (“whatever”) serves as a metaphor for the broader dialogue between generations this sort of punk-inspired independent cinema represents, with Karzi’s generation rejecting the strict rules of their predecessors. The film is experimental in this way. It’s dimly lit, and doused in an air of disassociation – specifically from the previous five generations of Chinese cinema. It’s interesting on this level as a reactionary and political piece, but it’s unfair to simply view Beijing Bastards as a piece for historical analysis.
Beijing Bastards on its own is aesthetically stunning and narratively lacking, but as an overtly impressionistic piece, it’s often hard to notice the latter. There’s this very perpetual sense that we’re watching a dream in Zhang Yuan’s film. Giant industrial cityscapes being panned across with Cui Jian howling over reverb-heavy guitars and slow drum parts. It forms an image of Beijing as a city that is both stylised and romanticised – one that, in retrospect, is particularly locked to the ennui of the era evinced in Yuan’s Beijing. The characters portrayed are idealised portraits of an existentially conflicted generation. They drink heavily, they take drugs, they wander the streets – carefully maintained, and beautiful characters that don’t portray the downside of the poorer elements of China at the time the film was made. Then again, the style imitates a certain stye of Western cinema that emerged from a similar ennui, albeit through a different set of contextual concerns. It’s fascinating to watch as chaos occurs on screen in Beijing Bastards, in such a beautifully blunted way. The negatives the characters face are always pacified by the surrealistic nature of the filming, the way in which Yuan cuts into other scenes, resulting in a piece that is overtly and intentionally patched together.
Beijing Bastards is a long take of a circumstance and of an era of artistic resistance. It’s a film that negotiates a very specific relationship between the film and the viewer, where watching it today – out of the original context – can feel, at times, a bit awkward. But it’s a piece that works very hard on reflecting a generation. I’d argue it succeeds, with a certain cinematic uniqueness. Beijing Bastards is definitely worth devoting the time to watch and, like a lot of Chinese cinema from its era, has been fairly underseen in the West. As an introduction to Sixth Generation filmmaking, Beijing Bastards is a fantastic place to start.