Dir: Zhu Wen. China. 2001. 84mins.
This idiosyncratic and extremely personal debut film by the poet-novelist Zhu Wen won't be to all tastes, but its offbeat sensibility and intriguing glimpses of a little-seen side of contemporary China earned it the Special Prize in the Cinema of the Present competition at Venice earlier this year. With this accolade as bait, Seafood should expect to attract bites from further festivals and, perhaps, from more daring niche distributors and broadcasters. However, its themes of prostitution and police corruption are unlikely to enhance its prospects in mainstream markets.
Zhang Xiaomei, a young woman (Jin Zi) arrives at the snow-covered seaside resort of Beidaihe, a destination favoured during the summer months by top Communist Party officials for their annual conferences to plan public policy: Mao wrote a famous poem about Beidaihe after his visit. In the heart of winter, though, the place is deserted and Xiaomei checks into a bleak hotel whose spookiness increases when the only other guest - an aspiring poet - is found dead in a blood -filled bath.
"Shit!" is the less-than-compassionate reaction of the middle-aged investigating policeman (Cheng Taisheng). "We get several people coming here each year to kill themselves." It is soon clear that the girl, a Beijing prostitute reeling from an unhappy love affair, has a similar motive for visiting a town which - off-screen as well as on - is China's capital of suicide.
The cop takes her under his wing, buying her a dinner of seafood, the local speciality, and giving her a string of reasons for living. Seafood is good, he tells her, and, like women, each dish has its own flavour; moreover "seafood lovers have a strong sex drive, like me". Despite his concern for Xiaomei, he's no knight in shining armour, but a thoroughly degenerate married man, at once comical and threatening, who subsequently rapes her before taking his leave with the promise to return the following day: "If you're not dead, we'll go for a drive."
Around two-thirds in, the story takes an unforeseen turn and Xiaomei returns to Beijing where she resumes her former profession and embarks on a bizarre escapade involving a fellow-hooker, a 100-yuan banknote and a cute pay-off gag which recapitulates the seafood motif. Though this later section is amusing in its own right, it feels a little like an afterthought or coda and the film never quite pulls off the abrupt change of tone and location.
But there are compensations in the atmospheric first part. While a little rough-and-ready technically (the movie is shot on DV, transferred to 35mm), it captures some poetic images of the ghostly seaside resort, touching lightly on the resonances created by the place's connections with China's power elite. There may be a satirical or allegorical edge to the story which a local audience would be better placed to appreciate. Still, overseas audiences can savour Zhu's macabre sense of humour and subtle delineation of the edgy relationship between his unlikely central couple, the shifting balance of power between them and the moral ironies of their behaviour.
Prod cos: Thought Dance Entertainment, Zhu Wen Workshop
Int'l sales: Golden Network Asia
Cinematography: Liu Yonghong
Prod des: Gao Jianxin
Main cast: Jin Zi, Cheng Taisheng, Ma Darnings