Most of A Corner of Heaven observes the back a boy’s head as he bobs and weaves through the Chinese wastelands before him. The film is lyrical in its use of this framing device, as the fluid movements of the camera keep pace, yet the technique also lends the movie a certain staginess, placing the boy on a proscenium between the audience and the action beyond.1 In this way, the child is a proxy for the audience as he moves through the terrain: a cultural intermediary not unlike the film festival itself.
A Corner of Heaven was BAPFF’s Monday night selection, bookended by a Q & A with director-cinematographer Zhang Miaoyan, and playing to a relatively small audience until projection issues with the adjacent Story of a Discharged Prisoner sent a stream of disappointed cinephiles trickling into the theatre. The advantage of downsizing the festival’s scope is just this kind of dialogue: in intimate spaces, between committed viewers and filmmakers visiting for the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Miaoyan’s film is nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Youth Feature Film, among others, yet I was weary walking into A Corner of Heaven that it might exemplify a certain kind of festival film that fills weeknight slots with increasing regularity, one that’s captured in pristine black and white, is frustratingly minimal, and is indifferent to the sadness of its characters.
Instead, audiences were treated to a muted drama bolstered by panoramic cinematography and pre-eminent location scouting, around which minor plot points are organised to almost resemble track changes. A young boy hailing from a pre-industrial nook of China wakes to find his mother vanished and subsequently sets out to find her, leaving his young sister and grandfather behind. Despite repeated misfortune and the freedom to return home, his journey continues through child labour rings, a drug den, and numerous portentous landscapes of modern industrial China.
This is Miaoyan’s third feature shot in black-and-white and his knowledge of the art is accordingly masterful. He favours depth-of-field, multiple planes of action and deep contrasts – a host of techniques that render even truckloads of melted plastic and roads slick with mud utterly scintillating. There’s a certain dissonance to watching something so grim rendered in cinematography so gorgeous, but Miaoyan’s film is more observational than it is morose or cynical. The long takes that privilege regular flows of time and space, the ambient soundscapes, the camerawork entertaining numerous focal points: it’s immersive in a way films rarely are.
Occasionally the action accelerates or slows to a shudder, which tends to disrupt the movie’s naturalistic flow. At its more contemplative moments the film becomes hazy and dreamlike: towards the end of its runtime, Miaoyan elegantly conveys onto a drug den an oneiric atmosphere, simply by overlaying the image of an opium smoker several times. His techniques are restrained, holding testament to the dictum that less is more.
A Corner of Heaven is situated in a location emblematic of the changes sweeping through pre-industrial parts of the East, where meccas of exploitative production are surfacing and finding children as their currency. The owner of an underground oil trade threatens to break the boy’s legs, words that are repeated verbatim by two similarly shadowy figures on two further occasions. The performances, by non-professional actors, are mumbled, and their characters seem like mere templates of malice. These choices are uninspired, and they make the film’s 95 minute run-time somewhat demanding.
There have been more inspired efforts at broaching social issues, but the film’s strength is in finding the landscapes that speaks straight to this dereliction: it is, at heart, an ethnographic tour through an ugly side of China, rusty and ramshackle.