Little Red Flowers
Director: Zhang Yuan (2006)
It is very clear that Little Red Flowers, which premiered Saturday in Beijing and is now being screened across China, is not a children's film.
Director Zhang Yuan's latest offering, however, is set in a kindergarten boarding school in Beijing during the 1960s and casts a bunch of four and five year olds.
Zhang has admitted this himself. At the press conference held before the premiere and during his interviews with local media, the director has been repeatedly emphasizing this fact.
But child's play, as portrayed in Zhang's new film, isn't much fun.
The intention of the movie is quite obvious: It is about how individuals struggle to fit in or avoid fitting in a society where universal conformity is the priority at the high price of independence.
While the theme sounds rather interesting, Zhang, a leading figure among young Chinese film directors, regrettably fails to tell the story in a compelling way.
One of its shortcomings is found in its weak storyline.
The story is set in the early 1960s on the eve of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
It begins with four-year-old Fang Qiangqiang being sent to a kindergarten by his father. There he has a rather difficult time adapting to the school's strict rules. Life in the kindergarten is quasi-militaristic. Everything is strictly regulated, from the precise way in which they must raise their hands to ask for more soup or rice, to the way they are expected to use the bathroom.
Fang often fails to acclimatize himself to this regimen. As his constant bedwetting and difficult behavior draws the ire of his short-fused teacher, the unintentional rebellion of the troubled young child finds himself increasingly ostracized by the other children.
The storyline is very simple maybe too simple to contain enough theatrical elements required to complete an absorbing feature.
Zhang's solution to that is dividing the film into a series of vignettes. However, the whole film is shot very plainly. Some scenes are not dealt with appropriately, and thus are inexplicable. For example, the film never explains why the teacher named Li dislikes Fang.
In addition, there are some similar scenes in different parts of the movie, while such repetition is totally unnecessary.
As the result, the story is told in an unconvincing way, which greatly weakens its power to touch audiences' hearts.
While redundancy and incoherence are only small flaws, there lies other major reasons that put off Chinese movie-goers.
The movie gets its English title from the kindergarten's rewarding system the children can get a paper-made red flower each time they follow directions or for being good. The practice is widely used in China and almost every Chinese is familiar with it.
The movie's Chinese title, Kan Shang Qu Hen Mei, which means "it seems beautiful," however, has nothing to do with any little red flower.
What's more, the difference of the titles is not just a matter of wording. The English title transcends a political metaphor, hinting something political the idea of questioning the group mentality, the need to conform and making yourself as much like everyone else as possible.
Probably it is such delicate hints of political elements that make it welcomed outside China. For those who do not know much about the country, the film provides a touch of exoticism, and leaves much room for imagination at the same time. The side effect is that the film may mislead people to think that what they see in the movie is the real China.
But for Zhang's fellow Chinese, such a thought-provoking but controversial concept does not work at all. Most of us grew up in a similar environment to Fang's kindergarten, so watching the movie does not give us any enjoyment of exoticism.
On the other hand, the movie does not dig deep enough to resonate among Chinese audiences today.
Most importantly, today's China is already vastly different from what it used to be at the time of the movie. Although conformity is still valued, individuality is also being given greater attention. China is much more diverse today, and the Chinese people have much more choices compared with four decades ago.
The movie is adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by novelist Wang Shuo, who was very famous in the mid-1990s. Some of the most essential spirit was lost during the process of the adaptation from Kan Shang Qu Hen Mei to Little Red Flowers.
Some people will compare Little Red Flowers with In the Heat of the Sun (Yang Guang Can Lan de Ri Zi), a movie adapted from Wang's other novel. While the latter, directed by Jiang Wen, is full of reminiscent atmosphere, Little Red Flowers has failed to capture that charm.
Of course it will be unfair to call Little Red Flowers neither rhyme nor reason. There does exist some parts that make the movie impressive.
The performance of the young actors and actresses, especially Dong Bowen who plays the part of Fang, is remarkable. The director captures the children playing, laughing and bullying each other, but he also conveys moments of intellect and thoughtfulness.
The cinematography is particularly remarkable. Many scenes in the film are so beautiful that they are just like oil paintings, or dreams.
(China Daily March 24, 2006)