A leading light of China’s Sixth Generation movement, Wang Xiaoshuai was at the vanguard of a 1990s cinema that dared to grapple with the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen. Films like 1994’s The Days and 1997’s Frozen captured the fractured psyche of a generation that thought they were a generation of change, but had those dreams disillusioned by oppressive violence. With Red Amnesia, Wang completes a trilogy of films (following 2005’s Shanghai Dreams and 2013’s 11 Flowers) — which have essentially affirmed that this cycle of aspiration and disillusionment has absolute precedent in Chinese history — and confronts the enduring psychic toll of the Cultural Revolution, examining how fractured relational bonds further deteriorate after decades of irresolution. The plot structure somewhat mirrors The Days, with the first two-thirds set in an industrialized, culturally vacuous Beijing, and the last section moving to a rural area of Guizhou province (where Wang spent his teen years, which happen to coincide with the Cultural Revolution). In a set-up with echoes of Michael Haneke’s Cache, an old widow, Deng Meijuan (Lu Zhong), receives crank calls which escalate into acts of vandalism — and gradually create the unnerving impression of being surveilled.
Completes a trilogy of films on the enduring psychic toll of the Cultural Revolution, examining how fractured relational bonds further deteriorate after decades of irresolution.
Wang doesn’t really have strong genre chops, but he does consistently interesting things with blocking and editing in Red Amnesia, playing on the varied perceptions surrounding the film’s central mystery — the resolution of which only occasions more questions, which Wang largely resists turning into cheap reveals. What the director’s primarily interested in here is the roll-over impact of volatile periods of history on the social and cultural life of the present, especially as this reality contradicts China’s official state messaging about its rapid modernization, its break with the past. Wang’s camera lingers on hollowed-out interiors and the facades of weather-beaten buildings, both contemplating their histories and emphasizing their present vacancy. In Beijing, revolutionary songs, performed dutifully by a choir of seniors, emanate from a dingy rehearsal space, while the same generation finds themselves unwanted in their families’ homes. The Guizhou section of the film depicts a society that may have succumb less to China’s westernization project, but also one that exists more directly in the shadow of an unsparing history, surrounded by looming shuttered factories, and living in a landscape that immediately bears the marks of the Cultural Revolution’s devastation. The attentiveness to sociocultural atmosphere in Red Amnesia is almost matched by Wang’s sharp relationship dynamics, which reify generational, filial, and cultural responsibilities as a means to heighten drama in a matter similar to Asghar Farhadi’s films. It may take a little while for all these moving pieces to properly shift into place, but when they do, what Wang proves is that, unlike some of his more commercially-minded compatriots, his interest in probing at the political consciousness of modern China did not end with the waning of the Sixth Generation movement.
You can currently stream Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia on Mubi.