Dir: Zhu Wen China. 2004. 100mins.
Zhu Wen began his working life as a factory engineer before deciding, 10 years ago, that stories were his real metier. After four short story collections, a novel and two film script collaborations (he was one of three credited screenwriters on the Zhang Yuang prison drama Seventeen Years), Zhu turned to direction with the 2002 Berlinale Forum entry Seafood. His second film, also in the Forum sidebar, is a quirky little tale of the older generation's disorientation in the new China: its central theme, an old man's journey to discover what he might have made of his life, is no doubt influenced by Zhu's reflections on his own career change, and on the way people can spend their whole lives regretting a path not taken years before.
Slow-moving but very human, and with a delightfully surreal sense of humour that reminds one of Takeshi Kitano's gentler side (particularly The Summer Of Kikijuro), South Of The Clouds is a festival film which arthouse distributors in territories with resilient, cine-literate audiences may be persuaded to take a chance on. Resilient is the key word: a drop in an already sluggish pace around two-thirds of the way through severely tests our boredom threshholds.
Retired factory worker Xu Daqin (Li Xuejian) lives in a small flat in Shanghai with his grown-up daughter, who works as a keep-fit instructor and wants to open her own gym. Xu is less into weights and more into open-air Tai Chi exercises in which he and an elderly friend pretend to be cranes or turtles; there's something Chaplinesque about the pair's hilariously pathetic workouts. For reasons that are not immediately obvious, Xu wants to go to Yunnan, a distant province close to southern China's border (or lack of border) with Tibet.
It's only around halfway through the film, when Xu has already been in Yunnan for several days, that his motives are revealed, in an odd dream sequence that has a sparse, mannered, painterly quality. Forty years before, Xu was due to be transferred to a factory in this province, but he passed up the job to allow a fellow worker to join his wife. Then he met a girl, got her pregnant, and as Xu puts it, "the rice was cooked". His retirement trip to Yunnan is a way of reconciling himself with that missed opportunity, now that his wife (who he never really got on with) is dead.
Wang Min's static cinematography, with its preference for full-figure longshots over close-ups, serves the deadpan narrative style well. There is a point, however, when the film loses even the most indulgent and long-suffering viewer: when (after a plot turn which it would be a spoiler to reveal) sulky and cranky old Xu is confined to his anonymous provincial hotel and the story doesn't quite know where to go, taking refuge in interminable sequences of Xu wandering about doing nothing much.
But by the end, Xu's dogged resistance to the system's assumption of guilt for a crime he did not commit builds up a kind of authority and respect - in those who have had the patience to sit it out this far.
Prod co/int'l sales: China Film Assist
Producer: Geng Ling
Screenplay: Zhu Wen
Cinematography: Wang Min
Production design: Tu Xiuran
Editor: Kong Jinlei
Music: Zuoxiao Zuzhou
Main cast: Li Xuejian, Liu Changsheng, Jin Zi, Zhao Huanuyu