The Dianying Diaries, part 4

Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”

北京乐与路 (Beijing Rocks)

2001 movie was a Hong Kong production filmed in Beijing and other parts of Mainland China. It was directed by Mabel Cheung (张婉婷), who is one of Hong Kong's most prominent directors. The story concerns a struggling singer-songwriter named Michael Wu (played by 吴彦祖 Daniel Wu) from Hong Kong who goes to Beijing to find inspiration and learn Mandarin, which is increasingly necessary in the Asian music market.

Back in Hong Kong, Michael's father is a wealthy businessman who is paying for his son's expenses during his creative dry spell. The senior Mr Wu owns a large beautiful courtyard home in an old hutong neighborhood, where Michael, along with his father's mistress, stays in Beijing. In addition to his songwriting, Michael plays in a rock band called the Mexican Jumping Beans, though he says playing rock in HK is a money-losing proposition. So in addition to brushing up on his Mandarin, Michael hopes to dip into Beijing's rock scene.

The other important part of the back story is that Michael is in trouble with the law. There are vague references to some kind of altercation in a Beijing pool hall and the fact that Michael's father has bailed him out of jail and is trying to pull strings on his son's behalf. So it's probably not a smart idea for him to be hanging out in a gritty rock club on the night the plot gets rolling.

Beans are frying in a beanstalk fire
Out from the pan, the beans sadly cry:
"We sprang from the same root, brother
Why do you give me such a hard time?"

The band on stage is called Moonwatchers, and things start going wrong when the club manager cuts off the lead singer's mic for some reason. The singer gets angry, stops the band, and starts yelling at the manager. A fight ensues, and it ends with the musicians and a couple of girlfriends grabbing as much of their gear as they can and climbing out the windows as the police arrive.

Michael picks up a pair of dropped drumsticks and follows them, finally catching up with them at the kind of cheap hotpot joint that can be found all over Beijing. Much drinking follows as Michael meets this bunch of social misfits who love to make noise and use nicknames. The lead singer is called
平路 (Road, played by 耿乐 Geng Le), and he takes a liking to Michael, though they all mostly refer to him as "Hong Kong Peasant" and make fun of his terrible Mandarin. Road's girlfriend is 杨颖 (Yang Ying, played by 舒淇 Shu Qi, who I think is one of the most beautiful actresses from China, Taiwan, or anywhere else).

The rockers teach Michael how to drink 二锅头 (erguotou, a potent alcohol) in a way I haven't seen done: mix it with Sprite and slam the glass on the table to make it fizz, then pour it down your throat as fast as you can. After a few of those, they pass around a couple joints Michael brought and get very happy.

Michael really likes these people, especially Yang Ying (who wouldn't?), and when his father shows up in Beijing, he packs a duffel bag, grabs his bass, and sets off to find them. They live and practice in a squallid, run-down neighborhood somewhere on the outskirts of Beijing. Ying makes a little bit of money working as a dancer in a cabaret of questionable legality.

As far as I can tell, the girls don't actually strip, just tease, which leads to trouble with the rough crowd one evening when Michael happens to stop by to watch. A nasty looking group of men comes up on stage demanding that the girls strip; Ying hits one of them, causing a big gash on the side of his head, and before long the police are carting the whole gang off. The sideshow manager manages to negotiate Ying's fine down to 5000RMB, but she's locked up in a crowded cell full of women for assault.

As we know, Michael has a rebellious streak, and is currently avoiding his father, so when the sideshow and the rock band decide to go "hole-hopping" (hitting the road without permits), he talks them into letting him come along. They all pile into a rickety old bus and head for the provinces, dancers, jugglers, rock band and all.

One of the unusual things about the movie is the occasional soliloquies by the characters, a bit like the candid interview bits we see on "reality" shows.

As the character talks about their dreams or whatever, there is goofy animation behind them illustrating the words.

At various times during their journeys, Ying and Road get into fights, and they usually end with her stomping out of their tent and spending the night under a tree or wherever. Michael tries to comfort her, and discovers that in spite of the friction, she sees Road as her soul-mate.

The band plays in a variety of poor villages to a mixture of baffled workers and dancing kids, though usually their music doesn't go over especially well. Road's lyrics seem to be pretty heady stuff, mixing Buddhist mysticism with social rebellion.

At one show, Road's father steps into the tent, causing him to stop singing and disappear. Michael saves the performers from an unhappy mob by starting to play 月亮代表我的心 (The Moon Represents My Heart), a famous old Chinese pop song. The rest of the band comes in to provide a rock background as Ying sings the familiar words.

Somehow, during the midst of all this, Road rides his motorcycle back to Beijing to meet with some record label people about signing the band. They don't care for his music or his attitude, and tell him that the rebelliousness of their other rock bands is mere marketing; in truth they are good corporate employees who do what management tells them.

While he's gone, Michael takes the opportunity to spend some time with Ying.

But Road's return puts an end to that. And Road is especially surly after his meeting in Beijing, though he doesn't tell anyone what's going on. He just keeps saying, "I signed it. It's all over."

That's as far as I'll go with the plot. Let's just say the story does not get a happy ending. We find out what really happened in the pool hall before Michael got arrested; and what the consequences will be.

Obviously, there's a lot of music in the film, but only some of it is rock. In fact, it's a little jarring sometimes when the soundtrack swells up with a typical orchestral cue; I wish they'd stuck with the rock theme. When the band is playing live, the mix is often very strange, with the vocals unusually prominent and the guitars rather quiet. I suppose this helps to heighten the focus of Road's creativity and thoughts. In addition to the Moonwatchers' music and the soundtrack, I recognized 唐朝 Tang Dynasty's version of "The Internationale" on the soundtrack, and I believe there are other bands represented as well.

While much of the film seems pretty down-to-earth, I wonder about the portrayal of country folk, which might be considered stereotypical: dirty, unsophisticated, crude, and money-hungry. Local officials like policemen are shown as easily bribed and manipulated.

Other examples of stereotypical characters include Michael's father, who is a slimy lizard more concerned about private pleasure and public image, and throwing his money around, than in his son's happiness. (On the other hand, this seems completely realistic.) And then there are the record company guys, who were totally fake in their fashionable clothes and sneering attitude. (Which again seems totally realistic!)

The editing is a little strange, though completely consistent with the rock idiom. Michael often carries around a little camcorder, and his footage is mixed in with the movie's normal film. The inclusion of the eyes-to-the-camera interview bits with animation takes us a bit outside the story, which serves to emphasize the fact that these characters do not entirely live in the same world as the "normal" people around them.

The jail where Ying spends a little time is really nasty, with a big, dirty cement room filled with women wrapped up in blankets on the floor. The women are made to recite the jail rules in unison in the morning.

There's a lot of swearing, and the language in general is very slangy, with lots of thick accents I found difficult to understand, so I had to rely on the subtitles.

All in all, I enjoyed this movie a lot. It's a fascinating picture of a part of Chinese life we don't see much of, in spite of the rash of documentaries you can find about the Beijing rock scene, all of which are more current, whereas this covers a bit older time period.

This body is a bodhi tree
And the mind a mirror bright,
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour
And let no dust ever alight.
So Buddha says:
If I don't go into hell, who will?

There is no bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright,
Since all is void
Where can the dust alight?
So I say:
So you say:
So he says:
So Buddha says:
If I don't go into hell, who will?
Wikipedia entry
IMDB entry

It is available from Netflix.

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