The Chinese cinema of Won Kar-wai is a great favourite here in lugerlondon.com and alongside mainland directors like Zhang Yimou and Lou Ye, he has given the west lingering, vivid imagery of what China meant in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Here, Then directed by Mao Mao gives us something we haven’t seen before – a fresh view of China and its feckless new generations and a fresh approach to cinema itself. It’s certainly not for everyone, especially if you’re used to major studio Hollywood productions, but there’s some evidence here of the beginning of a fresh approach in Chinese cinema.
This is Mao Mao’s first feature and although he’s from Shanghai and trained as an actor in Beijing, he has a fresh and unusual viewpoint that may not be to everyone’s taste, but allows you to see things differently and question the reality of how cinema is normally viewed and listened to. The camera lingers deliberately slowly in a series of long fixed takes, but there is much depth to each scene and it’s worth staying with the apparent emptiness of the story.
Characters look into a mirror and are often disappointed with what they see – like modern China looking at itself.
There’s an iconic moment in Here, Then where two young women are waiting for a bus to take them to the big city, and some young men in the background buzzing around on scooters. The camera is static, completely immobile then some tacky dance music starts up from an unseen source that makes the girls start to dance instinctively. Gradually one of the girls moves towards the lens, still dancing, until the lens looks right into the depth of her mindless, brown-eyed dancing soul. Then, still in the same take, the friend they had been waiting for arrives and they climb into the bus and they leave.
There are many moments of apparent self-loathing in the film. Characters look into a mirror and are often disappointed with what they see – like modern China looking at itself. Their lives, and by extension Chinese society, seem constantly frayed around the edges, and even supposedly glamorous hookers suffer from acne and dried skin as they contemplate the wasteland of the lives they try to fill with an all too empty materialism. Modern Chinese life seems not to sit well with the bygone values and culture of the pre-Mao era that many mainland directors love to celebrate and resuscitate in the form of fast action adventures.
In Here,Then the framing is deliberately repetitive, even monotonous and the sound track seems to be telling us other things, but exactly what we’re never sure, as it’s often lost in the noise and pollution of the surroundings. The director shows the spaces the characters live in and the actors move as the camera remains still but far from omniscient.
As in real life you look for a coherent narrative in this movie and find none, other than what you choose to give it. It’s like staring out of a window for a long time. Personal experience is more complex in real life than it’s usually depicted in movies, but Mao Mao has tried and largely succeeds in showing us real life with all its occasional emptiness and everyday boredom.
‘Emotion is ambiguous’ the director has said. He has given us a different view of contemporary China and, perhaps, a new way of viewing cinema. That’s not a bad start.