Director: Huo Jianqi (2004)
Huo Jianqi's films are less about plot and more about visual impact. His personal aesthetic was boldly stated in one of his best-known works, Nashan Naren Nagou, or 'Postman in the Mountains'. An art director before making films of his own, he is an expert at using color and atmosphere to set the mood and convey information that is never directly spelled out through the dialogue of his films. And he is at his best when portraying subtle relationships that develop and change through seemingly unimportant events.
Huo's new film, Nuan, starts with Lin Jinghe's (Guo Xiaodong) short visit to his hometown in the countryside after settling down in Beijing. In this slightly backward and rustic village, he meets Nuan, his childhood love. The film jumps back 10 years to when the teenagers were at middle school. Nuan is pretty girl with a good voice and is the object of all the boys' affection. All of them expect she will soon leave the quiet backwater to pursuer a career in the city. Nuan falls in love with a handsome acrobat from an opera troupe and dreams of leaving the village with him. The performer has to return to the city with his troupe, promising Nuan that he'll return for her. Two years pass and the acrobat doesn't show up. Nuan drops out of school and gradually accepts Jinghe, who also promises to marry her after he graduates from college. Just before Jinghe goes off to college, he is playing with Nuan on a swing and she falls off, permanently injuring her leg. Jinghe leaves for college and like the acrobat, promises Nuan he will return for her. But the excitement of the big city is too much for Jinghe, and he gradually forgets her. Fast forward to the present day. Nuan is married to an unimpressive local man and has a 6-year-old-daughter by him. At the end of the film, Jinghe again leaves the village longing for his childhood love.
The story is set in Maoyuan, an ancient town in Jiangxi province, and the damp, wet weather and narrow stone lanes and bottle-green ponds lend the film a certain sense of nostalgia.
According to the director, "We are all nostalgic sometimes. To some people, it is a mild sadness. To others, it may be heart breaking. No matter what it feels like, it is essentially a yearning for the irreversible past."
Some critics see the film as a condemnation of the fate of spurned women from the countryside, but director Huo Jianqi refuses to judge the male protagonist. To Huo, as people grow up they have to make choices. He says broken promises and unfulfilled dreams are a necessary part of all of our pasts. With the passing of time we come to recognize the beauty of it. Nuan has loved other men but is content with her present life. Often we have little control over our future and the film seems to suggest at best we should accept the present.
Swings appear many times in the film, suggesting the uncertainty of life and the unreliability of promises. Jinghe pushes Nuan on the swing, trying to persuade her to forget about her lover. As the two fall in love, they hold each tight as they swing. Jinghe says, "The swing helped me. It encouraged me to be brave, hid my uneasiness and magnified my strength. I want to sway forever on the swing. That is real flight. "
But the rope breaks and is never replaced.
Adapted from famed writer Mo Yan's novel "The White Dog and the Swing", Nuan won The Best Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year. While a critical success, this subtle and insightful film hasn't fared well at the domestic box office – unfortunately the fate of many if not most of China's small-budget art films.
(cityweekend.com.cn May 18, 2004)