Dir. Zhang Yuan. China.2006. 92mins.
In the droll Little Red Flowers, eccentric Sixth Generation director Zhang Yuanshapes a comically alive, delicately observed adaptation of theautobiographical novel by Wang Shuo.
It plays like a Chinese Zero For Conduct:a sharply etched, emotionally precise account of an incorrigiblefour-year-child's year spent at a kindergarten boarding school.
If some of the director'sprevious work (East Palace, West Palace, Seventeen Years) was fairly daring conceptually - if repetitive andmonotonous in its execution - then this new piece is relaxed, playful, andopen.
Premiering in competition atSundance's world cinema section, it should have deep play on the festivalcircuit, and perform well in key European territories - it also appears in thePanorama Special section at Berlin - as well as Asian markets.
Zhang's films have nevergathered a significant art house US following and release beyond major citieslike New York and San Francisco - which have significant Mandarin-speakingcommunities - may prove more challenging.
The feature is set in thegrimy, mannered aftermath of the China's revolution, and the title refers tothe prizes bestowed on well-behaved children who act in the martinet fashion ofthe instructors.
Zhang has seemingly learnedfrom the masters of directing non-professional children (Truffaut,Kiarostami, SatyajitRay). Like recent models, such as Jacques Doillon's Ponette, heinsists on drawing his young subjects as intrepid, emotionally developed peoplewith intelligence and individuality.
From its opening image ofthe child entranced by the blindingly beautiful sight of the white snow dottingthe ink black sky, Little Red Flowersis a quiet celebration of imagination and wonder in defiance of a rigid socialconformity.
Qiang (Dong) has alert, beautiful eyes, a mop top ofblack, unruly hair, and an endlessly inventive sense of physical and socialdisruption. Upon his arrival at the urban kindergarten, he immediately sizes uphow to play off the contrasting personalities of his two teachers: the rigid,straight-laced Li (Zhao) and the more open, permissible assistant Tang (Li).
His initiation at the schoolfinds him having his ponytail cut and being humiliated by wetting himself onstage when he is unable to discard his clothes properly.
Taking as his accomplices two bright, inquisitive sisters Nanyan (Ning, the director'sdaughter) and Beiyan (Chen), Qiangsets about undermining the teachers' authority. He openly mocks theirpuritanical attention to hygiene and controlling body fluids, continuouslyprancing around the confined quarters naked from the waist down. Such constantnudity is one of the film's most quietly subversive acts.
Having achieved his greatestsuccess - leading a rebellion against the diabolically controlling Li - Qiang then becomes abusive and nasty, a bully and tyrantwhose need for attention undercuts his own sympathy.
Zhang's talent is to revealchildhood as a shifting series of prerogatives. He captures the emotionaldaring of children, from multiple extremes - the impudence, theanti-authoritarian contest of wills, the sexual curiosity - in a continuallyfresh and unsentimental way without denying the darker implications and nastydiscontents.
It ends with Qiang status as an outsider preserved,a loner unable to assimilate and find his place.
The result is funny and sad,and has a brutal shock of recognition, especially when a string of girls mimicthe fascist military manoeuvres of a Red Army squadron. The warmer, gentlertone never betrays its quiet alarm and bitter portrait while its telling is allthe more spontaneous and refreshing.
Beijing Century Good-Tidings Cultural Development Ltd.
Huakun Entertainment Ltd
Citic Culture and Sports Enterprises Ltd
Downtown Pictures Production
Alex Z. Jia
Zhang Yuan, based on Wang Shuo's novel Could BeBeautiful