The Orient Depress
DIRECTED BY YUAN ZHANG/MANDARIN/2013 (USA release)
The success of China’s economy has been well documented. Whenever one country can buy another country’s debt just to keep their own money from appreciating in value, you have to imagine they’re doing all right for themselves. But lest those gaudy GDP numbers make you think “a rising tide lifts all boats,” Director Zhang Yuan’s Beijing Flickers implores you to consider the youth of Chinese society whose boats might not be so seaworthy. Without a doubt, Flickers is a story that resonates halfway around the world, because it is a story that has always happened in all places.
San Bao (Duan Bowen), our somber hero and a recent transplant into the big city of Beijing, has had a very bad week. First his dog “Luck/Happiness” runs away, then his boss gives him the axe, and finally his girlfriend dumps him for a richer man. It’s a sad country song no matter what country you’re in. Naturally San Bao heads down to his favorite watering hole to drown his sorrows. In a fit of melancholic excess, he figures he might as well try to eat his glass as well. And does. San Bao wakes up in the hospital, mouth covered in gauze, next to his friend Wang (Lv Yulai) who also came with him to the city looking for work. The room is shared with a particularly exuberant recipient of cosmetic surgery, the tranvestite Xioa (Shi Shi). Once out of the hospital San Bao rendezvous with a crew of young, upward mobility-challenged misfits. They soon share liquor-fueled adventures of fleeting joy coupled with darker moments of disappointment and alienation.
Beijing Flickers plays like a more down-tempo, more cynical version of Reality Bites. San Bao, who narrates the movie in despondent, overly poetic phrases—“memory is also a demon”—attempts suicide multiple times. While it’s never played for laughs, it’s never played for melodrama either. His friends cannot fully understand his despair, but eventually their own stories lead them to similar ennui. It is clear that the city, however magnificent and promising, is also a crusher of dreams.
Zhang Yuan seems to be aware of the Danish levels of sad his movie could have. He injects the movie with particularly fun and energetic moments that lift it from its doldrums in a pleasant way, resolving into a satisfying if somewhat contrived resolution. For all its meditative beauty and bad poetry, it remains accessible. I have to imagine that we are supposed to look at San Bao as an obnoxious voice throughout the movie. Kinda how Romeo is really much easier to imagine as a whiny teenager. Anyone who reflects sincerely, “Darkness is its own kind of light” has been listening to too much emo.
Beijing Flickers does well with its portrayal of city life and the misadventures therein. If it is indeed indicative of the mindset of Chinese 20- and 30-somethings, then we have more in common with our brothers in the East than we might have previously imagined.