In post-industrial China the modern city has been popularly imagined as a utopia, and the gulf between its desired futurity and the confining reality of the countryside has long fixed the attention of realist filmmakers of the Sixth Generation such as Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai. I am thinking of Red Amnesia, in which the rush to modernity precipitates both a personal and national forgetting of rural existence, with agrestic history forcibly leaking into the urban future in the form of repressed memories. In Ciao Ciao, director Song Chuan presents a reiteration of the Sixth Generation’s thematic interest in the lapses or malfunctions of China’s urbanist ideology as they are realised in the setting of uncertain personal lives.
The film opens with Ciao Ciao (Liang Xueqin) returning from Canton to her home village. Her ill-fitting presence there articulates questions of disjuncture: how does one return from utopia to reality, and, when one has been there long enough, doesn’t utopia feel more real than our neglected personal histories? Since national futurity is imagined as urban, the bodies that reside outside of city centres are delegitimised: they are alienated by their links to the past. When happiness has been configured commercially, with class spatially stratified into urban and rural zones, the magnetism of upward mobility produces the countryside as a literal place of dissatisfaction and despair. Ciao Ciao enquires into the dilemma of youth who desire for a socially-recognised self-actualisation in a context that is without the hope of futurity.
In Ciao Ciao, glitch music plays incongruously upon images of the green valley in which the film is set, evoking the kind of fantastical naturalism of open-world RPGs. Glitch means both to be and to suffer from the sudden, temporary malfunction of machinery. Song’s choice of soundtrack is itself a glitch upon the bucolic setting, and suggests his interest in the way this technological term diagnoses tears in the illusion of a homogenous national mindset. The film is self-aware of its position as being both the filmic representation of these tears, and a cultural event that constitutes and reproduces such tears.
Economic aspirations are played out in sexual engagements as Ciao Ciao is mystified as the representation of feminine, sexual desirability, and the seduction of urbanity. On Ciao Ciao’s wedding night, a group of young men egg on her new husband with sexual innuendos. They figure as an unruly double of the troop of young men in the immediately preceding scene, who are lectured on their debt to the Communist party as they prepare to seek work in the cities. Ideological anxieties over the tension between parity and irregularity are depicted through plot lines of intergenerational matrimonial betrayal. The equalising adage, “men are all the same”, is subverted in the private speech of mother and daughter who, in pursuing ultimately unsatisfying affairs, reinterpret the statement to mean that all men are interchangeable, attempting an ineffectual challenge to the enshrined authority of familial patriarchs.
Dai Jinhua’s feminist analysis, that “the onset of the Cultural Revolution witnessed Patricide in the name of the Father: it destroyed the existing order, by way of a control beyond every control…which generated a culture of murderer-Sons” is adapted by Song, who presents us with a murderer-daughter. Ciao Ciao reinterprets Mao’s revolutionary slogan “to rebel is justified” in the terms of unheeded personal liberty. Pursuing self-interest, Ciao Ciao’s departure from the village and return to Canton shatters two family units and revokes expectations of the conventional idea of familial duty.
Ciao Ciao’s simultaneous departure/return is a glitch that becomes an open wound, a social rupture in the village that resembles the railway viaduct which dissects the valley, on which Ciao Ciao is borne back to the city. We are left to wonder where the glitch actually lies: is it in Ciao Ciao’s rejection of rural life and the disruption this accords to the village community? Or, has the glitch been in the duration of her stay; an interruption of the overwhelming narrative of urbanisation within China’s capitalist embrace of modernity? Ciao Ciao examines an instance of friction, one of many which both strain and support the homogenising, nationalist momentum that marches ever forwards and looks never to what is outside the centre.