Directed by Zhang Yang. China. 2001. 118min.
Having one major national hit, Spicy Love Soup (1997), behind him and an international fest favourite, Shower (1999), confirming his talent, Zhang Yang is considered one of the most promising talents to come out of China in recent years. Quitting, a powerful docu-drama tracing the fall from grace of a Chinese movie star who succumbed to drugs as he was reaching the pinnacle of his career, confirms the director's gifts and his original approach to the genre. However, keen followers of Chinese cinema looking for political comments or subversive messages may emerge relatively empty handed from this picture.
Jia Hongsheng, an action movie star in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also associated at various points in his career with the pop music scene, started taking drugs while playing on stage in The Kiss Of The Spider Woman under the direction of Zhang Yang. Gradually overcome by existential dilemmas, losing contact with reality and turning down work systematically, he gradually cut himself off his old acquaintances, shut himself in his room, allowing his sister to provide for his daily needs and going out only to refresh his drug stash.
Surrounding himself with posters of Western movies such as Taxi Driver and with Western records, particularly the Beatles, the proponents of his own personal gospel "Let It Be", he rejected his Chinese origins and fantasized that he might have John Lennon's blood flowing through his veins. His parents, members of a small theatre group in the provinces, decided to retire a couple of years early and come to Beijing to help care for their ailing son but he refused at all times to consider himself sick. Annoyed by what he considered to be their outdated customs and concepts, he criticized everything they did, ate and wore, and couldn't stand their constant supervision. Only when they reached the conclusion that despite all their desperate efforts, his condition did not improve, did they call in the police, who put Jia in a nursing home and forced him to kick the habit.
The originality of the film lies in Zhang Yang's particular choice of delivering the story. Not only has he asked the real people - Jia Hongsheng, his parents, his sister, his friends and even the staff of the mental home where he spent some time - to play themselves. But going one step further, he weaves interviews with all of them (and with himself as well) into the film, moving back and forth in time to illuminate various episodes in Jia's downfall.
To remind the audience they are watching an artistic version of real events, he often resorts to effective jump cuts (for instance, in a series of meals telescoped into one) or he pulls the camera back once in a while to reveal the stage of a theatre on which the actors are performing their parts. The opening sequence has Jia himself addressing the camera and giving his consent to the entire project, followed later by his parents who are explaining their involvement.
All transitions from documentary to staged action are remarkably smooth and, despite the complex dramatic structure that requires the spectator's constant attention, the emotional impact of the film is sustained. Most touching are the family scenes - the father trying to put on a pair of undersized jeans just to please his son, their walks together around the city, the willingness of the parents to sacrifice everything and to accept any insults as long as there might be a chance of pulling him out of his addiction.
Of course, it is tempting to see this also as a chronicle of the Chinese showbiz scene in the course of the last decade. But this doesn't seem to be Zhang's intention as Jia's case is specific and if there is a feeling of discontent, doubt and rebellion against society running through the film, it is never underlined or dealt with in detail. Harassing his father with queries about the meaning of life and happiness would be normal in any political climate, though naturally, the scene becomes more loaded when set in a climate that supposedly provides answers for every question.
The moralistic ending - all one has to do is to follow society's rules, accept one's identity and everything will fall into place - may be rather conventional and simplistic and it certainly does not suggest solutions to any of the soul-searching questions raised earlier. But then Zhang Yang can always resort to the excuse that this is a real story and this is its real end.
Prod. cos: Imar Films, Xian Film Studios
Int'l sales: Fortissimo Film
Prods: Peter Loehr, Zhang Peimin
Scr: Zhang Yang, Huo Xin
Cinematography: Wang Yu, Cheng Shouqi
Prod. Des:. An Bin
Ed.: Yang Hong Yu
Music: Yang Zhadong
Main cast: Jia Hongsheng, Jia Fengsen, Chai Shiuling, Wang Tong, Shun Xing, Li Jie, Zhang Yang, An Bin