There’s one very well-executed scene in mainland Chinese indie director Geng Jun’s Manchurian Tiger: Ma Qianli (Jun regular Zhang Zhiyong), a one-time-successful real estate mogul who’s now deep in debt, slumps back in his chair and solemnly smokes a cigarette as he plays voicemails from business partners who berate him over his poor finances. The camera pushes in on Ma slowly, until he looks up, seemingly breaks the fourth wall, and delivers a terse monologue: “Do you feel better after hearing this? Are you all going to sit here and listen all day?” After a brief pause, a reverse shot reveals that there’s a diegetic audience for Ma’s speech — a group of angry family members who, as we soon learn, have all sunk their savings into Ma’s latest, spectacularly failed business venture. Of course, the sequence, which pointedly arrives very early in the film, still resonates with the initial “meta implication” of Ma being a seeming conduit for Jun, his words prodding filmgoers about the passiveness of their viewership, and even maybe dinging the aestheticization of Jun’s favored slow-cinema style?
Manchurian Tiger runs almost two hours, though it doesn’t feel greatly more distended than Jun’s other films, even 2013’s just-52-minute The Hammer and Sickle Are Sleeping. That’s partly because the stories are very similar — bad luck, hard times, and freezing cold weather in Jun’s native Heilongjiang province — but also because there’s a constant friction at play between a seeming desire to depict the harsh physical and social realities of poor, rural life in the province and Jun’s always broad, stereotype-reliant approach to satire. One tends to wish, when subjected to the sluggish rhythms of a Jun film, that the director would either punch-up the action and embrace the genre elements that weave through his narratives (here, mobsters shaking down Ma for any coin he has left, as well as a procedural side-plot involving a woman investigating her husband’s extramarital affairs) or cast off the character quirks and plot contrivances that hamper attempts at capturing social realism in today’s poor, rural China. Neither change is likely, though, and that has as much to do with Jun’s own conception of contemporary Chinese arthouse filmmaking as it does the broader movement’s aesthetic preferences and — perhaps most of all — the political and economic conditions that shape it.
As with The Hammer and Sickle Are Sleeping and 2017’s Free and Easy, Jun favors a cross-cutting approach with Manchurian Tiger, introducing a series of plots unfolding around the same geography and gradually bringing those stories together through a series of unfortunate events. Ma’s recent financial woes are unknown to Xu Dong (Zhang Yu) when his pregnant wife, Meiling (Ma Li), forces him to sell the family dog, and so Xu trusts that Ma, unlike the scores of poor people in their village, will look after the animal instead of eating him. Meanwhile, Meiling discovers a dyed hair on her chronically unfaithful husband’s clothes and takes to the streets to interrogate the various women whom Xu has had affairs with in the past. Both Xu and Meiling eventually find themselves on parallel paths to revenge, and no one makes out well by the end. The message here is in the title: all parties act like caged tigers, their social and economic status the bars keeping them trapped in mundane lives. This miserablism is cut with satire, black comedy, and several more, diminishingly effective fourth wall breaks. The filmmaking is never inelegant, but rather inert, and the writing tends to handicap any attempt at nuance.
Indie cinema surfaced in China in the 1990s, seemingly born out of an urgent desire to document the rapidly changing social reality of the country in the decades after opening and reform — films were made not just by graduates of the famed Beijing Film Academy, as was generally the case with past generations of Chinese cinema, but by visual artists of other disciplines experimenting with the medium, especially as access to cameras and equipment expanded. Regardless of their pedigree, the filmmakers of this period tended not to be exposed to broader trends in a global arthouse cinema; they developed aesthetics based on a combination of the limited exposure they had to bootleg media, what was shown domestically in theaters, and, for some, what their college professors were able to screen for them. A combination of the strictures of access and the still-developing guidelines of censorship created the conditions for an innovative, bold form of independent filmmaking that peaked in the early 2000s, just before both of these crucial contexts underwent big changes: Laws governing indie film were firmed up by PRC leadership, and the advent of the Internet allowed an ever-increasing range of access to all kinds of cinema, both classic and contemporary. The filmmakers whose careers began after this period — and Jun Geng debuted right around the start of it — both understand the global arthouse culture they’re aiming for and are ever-aware of the threat of censorship, not just to their artistry but to the financial commitment of their producers.
To a certain extent, this is another sign of homogenization — Chinese filmmakers being subjected to the same intense financial obligations and considerations that mar the production of arthouse films in even the biggest markets in the world right now. But the pressures of censorship are a more unique facet of this paradigm. For a Chinese “indie” film (the exact definition of these productions is complicated and often involves trans-national funding) to earn backing, usually, first the script has to pass muster with censors, but even that is no guarantee that the film itself will do the same — and the longer the need for recuts and for re-submitting films, the more expense to the producers, and the more that dings the filmmakers’ relationships with them. The result of this has been a kind of stunted growth in mainland Chinese independent film — which is where we return to Jun Geng, who seems like an appropriate poster child for that development. An adept filmmaker on a formal level, Jun filters the influence of the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy through a distinctly Chinese cultural perspective. But Manchurian Tiger, much like Jun’s others, demonstrates a reticence to be subversive, trading the bite of satire for a more essentializing portrait of rural life — one that retreats from the vanguard of Chinese indie cinema and instead strikingly resembles the messaging of its State-sponsored counterpart.
Published as part of NYAFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.