Huang Ji is among the last handful of Chinese directors to sneak through the portal distribution company dGenerate Films, the center of an important 2000s artistic nexus in Chinese cinema (also including Rotterdam & Locarno film festivals) that was able to facilitate an entry point for alternative and outsider Chinese filmmakers to enter the international arthouse mainstream before that pathway was essentially closed on the American end. Along with partner in filmmaking and life, cinematographer/director Otsuka Ryuji, she has become established as one of the core figures of a new wave in Chinese art film on the festival circuit.
The duo’s latest film, Stonewalling, depicts Lynn, a 20-year-old Hunanese woman dispassionately fumbling through a year of her life as she carries an unplanned pregnancy to term. She is largely isolated, perpetually scrolling on her phone, and noncommittal to her supposed life goals of learning English and becoming a flight attendant. Meanwhile, her mother, who runs a women’s clinic and is being exploited by a multi-level marketing scam on the side, has caused complications in a client’s pregnancy. The client’s more influential family — the father runs a small chain of kindergartens — is now hounding her for crippling compensation payments. After an abandoned attempt to make quick money by ovum donation, Lynn connects the dots and decides to give her baby to the other family in exchange for her mother’s debt being dropped. Lynn is quietly non-participatory in a very Gen-Z way; it’s evocative of the “lying flat” meme that dominated Chinese social media last year, but also of general social trends that have been replicated among today’s youth the world over: they are more isolated, less romantically engaged, but also less inclined toward crime and addiction — in short, they are defined by their passivity. There are also echoes of the compounding crises of fertility that have been plaguing China in recent years, as well as the filmmakers’ established preoccupation with female sexuality and reproductive health.
At a more fundamental level, this film and the works that directly surround it represent a plateauing of the trajectory of Chinese art cinema; while films like Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains and Mama legitimately succeed and contribute to the time-honored lineage of Chinese visual artistry, it’s tempting to imagine what could have been in their place. The avant-gardism of 2000s digital has been sublimated by analog thinking and higher definitions of hyperreal HD, and while this hasn’t been unique to China — indeed, it has more or less been the story of the last 20 years of global cinema — it’s particularly disheartening given that China has had one of the largest and most radical digital arts scenes in the world. The spartan digital experiments of Huang’s peers & forebears in the dGenerate scene delving into counterculture and counterreality have been stabilized and moderated into a meticulous slow cinema process, here manifested in a formal approach of long takes, mid-distance shots, no camera movement, and little non-diegetic sound. This aesthetic mode isn’t text-independent though, as here the glacial editing schema and static, naturalistic eyeline-framed compositions firmly parallel the slow drift of our protagonist as she observes the passage of her own life largely with ambivalence and detachment. The filmmakers’ comments that Stonewalling is “observing a post-Tiktok China” also seem to bear its filmic locus; the formalism is in diametric opposition to the accelerated visual language and frenetic rhythms of the video platform. It recalls Peter Watkins’ critique about the monoform — that the growing speed of editing rhythms and heightened visual sensationalism of late-’90s/early-’00s spectacle cinema was part of a new hegemonic language of media — a specter that has haunted the world of art cinema ever since that deeply insightful misdiagnosis was levied upon us.
The Changsha setting, an archetypal middle China city, is documented with admirable precision. Famous landmarks like the enormous stone sculpture of Chairman Mao — which appears fleetingly — aside, Huang & Otsuka show off the spaces that are endemic to daily life in Changsha, capturing the Hunan capital in perhaps the most authentic terms of any internationally distributed feature. We even get to hear the Changsha dialect — a variant of Xiang Chinese featuring heavy commonality with Mandarin — which is very rarely heard in feature films, even those set in this city. If you have spent much time in a city like Changsha, among the normal people that populate it, you will likely have heard dozens of stories much like the one told in Stonewalling, and met dozens of characters like those who appear in it. Babies traded transactionally, the forging of birth certificates, debt, financial hardship, gambling addiction, the dissolution of family bonds, and other intersecting crises of modernity are all part of the social tapestry. Much of this arises out of recent history: over the past generation, massive numbers of people have gone from living in post-communist rural communitarian villages, in which everyone is a near neighbor, to atomized city living, all endless rows of indistinct apartment complexes in urban centers like Changsha, which has a comparable population to New York City — indeed, the mother’s dialect here is subtly different to that of urban Changsha, likely indicating her origin in such a village. But then, such “small” cities that consumed the rural sprawl were almost instantly fled for further “upgrades”: Guangzhou, London, Australia — the dangling promise of a better life in the latter two is constantly alluded to in Stonewalling. And this is no surprise, really: if one accepts the logic that such small, negligible GDP rural communities should be abandoned for the financial opportunity of cities, surely one should abandon a city of middling opportunity like Changsha for a gigalopolis like Guangzhou or the wealth of the world’s richest countries.
The general thrust of this notion heavily parallels the urban strain of the 5th Generation of Chinese film, far less known internationally than the folk cinema of Zhang Yimou & Chen Kaige but more impactful domestically, and most notably typified by director-screenwriter Xia Gang and novelist-director Wang Shuo. Their films centered the same concerns: the loss of identity, tradition, and intimacy in cities, and the growing diaspora seeking wealth and opportunity overseas, all driven by a languid pessimism similar to what Huang & Otsuka have engendered here. But where Wang and Xia were irreverent to the point of antisociality, here their misogyny is inverted for feminism. While this parallel is due to the social prescience of Xia and others, it’s likely also a function of the recent 5th Generation’s resurgence in popularity, itself largely a function of the inward shift of Chinese cultural apparatuses and the identification of the 1980s as a semi-arcadian moment in modern China from which patriotism can be drawn. In this sense, Stonewalling is on the other side of the Hi, Mom or Leap coin, while many of the actual artists behind the original wave 40 years ago have been pushing ahead in new directions (see recent directorial work from Zhao Fei and Huo Jianqi).
But for the most part, all this is only representative of a broader cultural critique insofar as the corner of reality Stonewalling reflects is a mundane microcosm of a broader whole. The film’s observances are dissolute and unpointed. Stonewalling could never attract an audience in Changsha itself, not because of censorship, or because its social realism cuts too close to home, but precisely because it doesn’t cut, it only copies. Ultimately, very few will be satisfied by the depictional mode of operation here: imagine your own life in its most menial and ugly moments, when you are lacking motivation, unthinkingly making life decisions, dealing with family problems, embarrassing your boyfriend at a party and going home to sit on the toilet alone while your body aches, all unromantically transposed into a series of long takes with the emotional distance of CCTV footage. That is essentially what Stonewalling amounts to, a small corner of reality unflinchingly captured on the screen with earnest literalism and aestheticised within the cracks of a structure of absolute representation. Each filmmaker in this global current is contributing their own small piece to a grand cartographic tapestry for screen tourists, like the proverbial map so large and detailed it replaces the land on which it is based. Like rust to fire, the epi-artistic process at work here may ultimately be more corrosive to reality than the social media world that Huang and Otsuka so deliberately frame it in opposition to, but the film’s strengths remain notable, if not a wholesale salvation for its aesthetic deficiencies.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.