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Scenes from the Madhouse: The Films of Li Hongqi

By Maya E. Rudolph

Winter Vacation (dir. Li Hongqi)

Winter Vacation (dir. Li Hongqi)

In Li Hongqi’s three narrative films, So Much Rice (2005), Routine Holiday (2008) and Winter Vacation (2010), the poet and director doesn’t simply recast a world of small but weighty details, but the audiences’ conception of the ordinary. Household couches resemble concrete slabs.; Throwaway remarks seem to hang interminably in the air.; And in every idiosyncratic moment, a sense of waiting. Waiting for someone or something to arrive or depart. Waiting for a punch-line, or a punch. Within Li’s sparse architectural frames are empty spaces waiting to be filled by collisions between comedy and misery, lightness and heaviness, boredom and uproar.

Minister of a deadpan legacy that’s traceable from Samuel Beckett to Jim Jarmusch, Li Hongqi is a master of minimalism, of banal detail, of life as it is lived in absurdly slow motion. Born in Shandong Province in 1976, Li belongs to a generation to whom society’s evolution has unfurled in decades of upheaval and structural change. In his three narrative features, and the left-field 2010 rock documentary Are We Really So Far From a Madhouse?, Li invites an experience to a world that both resembles and is completely alien to our own. It’s a madhouse for sure, but Li’s spin on the foibles of modern life is something closer to a dull roar, a silent scream.

Li Honqi’s 2005 debut So Much Rice begins with Mr. Mao who, playing an after-dinner game of hide and seek with his girlfriend, walks out of his home and never returns.. Mao, a figure who claims to be at home everywhere and nowhere, seems to be playing an unending game of hide and seek, Proceeding with the stolid pacing that has become Li’s trademark, Mao and his policeman buddy Xiao He enter a co-habitation that is complicated, naturally, by a girl. Xiao Zheng, whom Xiao He picks up through a dubious matchmaking service, is as fickle with her affections as the two men she drives apart. Eventually, the heavy load of their relationships, seemingly represented by a cumbersome bag of rice, becomes too much for the trio, and Mao sets off on his own.

So Much Rice is a lethargic comedy of manners, a study in transience and the dull exchange of goods and services that make up so much of life. Police stations are empty rooms for cops to smoke and read the paper. Xiao Zheng is as much a bargain and a burden as her bag of rice. Eventually, it all fades away, but not without leaving an enigmatic trace. Following an October 2012 screening of So Much Rice at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY, director and film critic Wang Wo described his first encounter with Li’s debut. “At first I wanted to critique the story,” said Wang, “but there was no story to critique. I wanted to critique the performances, but there were no performances to critique.”

Following So Much Rice, Li went on to write and direct Routine Holiday and Winter Vacation, their titles perhaps a nod to Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation and Jarmusch’s influential canon of contemporary lassitude. A meditation on empty time and space that’s clever in its obliqueness, Routine Holiday concerns a group of men who gather in the home of their friend to pass China’s National Holiday. The most deliberately existential of Li’s films, Routine Holiday is a darkly philosophical story of what can occur – panic, emptiness -when regular life pauses or simply lulls. The consumption and digestion of food, the calendar, blank faces, nonsense riddles, the circularity of conversation: it’s an uneasy kind of party.

Winter Vacation, Li’s most lauded work, weaves together stories of life in a nondescript Inner Mongolian town during Chinese New Year. Amidst a faintly ominous sonic background of fireworks, a group of bored youths while away time with petty undertakings and torpid exchanges. A little boy announces his intention to run away from home to live his ambition of becoming”an orphan.” A withered, elderly couple files for divorce. Relationships fall apart, and petty violence occurs, but the story is thick with ennui so meticulously constructed to finally suggest a constant, low-burning flame, the sound of the incessant New Year’s fireworks. At the end of the film, life shuffles back to relative productivity and the fireworks die down, only to be replaced by a primal scream of rock music that blares in the film’s final moments over a blackboard scrawl instructing students “How To Be A Useful Person In Society.”

Winter Vacation conveys a more robust narrative interpretation of themes raised in Routine Holiday, sometimes in a literally self-referential way. A character in Winter Vacation says he is “moved” by a TV program, only to reveal that he’s watching Routine Holiday. Li focuses the two films around China’s two major holidays, only to deflate these socially constructed dates of significance with the emptiness of their actual experience. He also reapportions Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea of filmmaking as “sculpting in time.” Figures move through Winter Vacation’s stark Inner Mongolian landscape so slowly and sparingly, it seems sometimes that Li is filming a still – until someone moves and a new way of feeling this time and space grows apparent.

In the current landscape of Chinese indie filmmakers, Li Hongqi stands alone. His work is hip but not trendy, stylized but not stylish, seemingly apolitical but not apathetic. While politics don’t emerge overtly in Li’s work, his conception of the absurd relies so heavily on a distinctly Chinese set of phenomena, grammar, and social norms, it’s impossible not to feel a loaded subtext. Unlike many of his contemporaries, it’s not Li’s style to pry open the annals of injustice. Rather, in the dead air of Li’s world, disillusionment with society hangs over everything like a disease. So Much Rice‘s Xiao He spends an eternity guessing which Chinese character “Wu” makes up someone’s name, so that an entirely commonplace investigation into language stumbles into a gaping hole of unknowing. A smart-alecky Winter Vacation youth announces that he will devote his life to upholding “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” in a monotone that lies unsettlingly between sarcasm, apathy and fear. Despite having “no story” and “no performances,” So Much Rice delivers a narrative of moments that, while spare and awkward, build to unexpected, almost slapstick humor.

In each of Li’s films, petty fighting breaks out, and slaps and hurtful words chucked in bursts of sallow violence. The design of Li’s gags is simple, but  no moment is overplayed. Li’s stunts are an ideological assault on the total absurdity of modern life, disguised as a funny game of hide and seek – a lot unsaid and invisible to the eye, but present all the same. Like Wittgenstein, Li Hongqi seems to believe that society’s design is predicated on punctuation. Every temporal ellipsis or dash of motion, every line of dialogue, every cut is a deliberate move to re-configure the ordinary and reshape it into something wholly bizarre. Even your own name sounds like total nonsense if you repeat it over and over.

A nonlinear crash of image and sound, Are We Really So Far From a Madhouse?, is a testament to the far-reaching borders of Li’s experimentation with narrative. A genre departure for Li, the documentary focuses on PK-14, the Nanjing-bred, Beijing-based godfathers of contemporary Chinese indie rock. Throw out sequential narrative; throw out synched dialogue and performance footage. It’s a rock documentary turned inside out that’s brutal to watch and totally beside itself, with a spirit that feels close to the raw noise that closes Winter Vacation. PK-14 is a compelling band with piercing lyrics and an articulate frontman in Yang Haisong, but that’s not where Li’s focus lays. Li evades the maximalism of rock ‘n roll, distorting time and space, silence and noise the point where even the unavoidably human expires in meaning.

There’s a controlled technical mastery in Li’s narrative work, from the level gaze of his camera to the moribund weight of each scene that arrives and departs in silent stillness. When action finally arrives, the audiences who may be ready to reconsider the meaning of paint drying are rewarded with a laugh, or a grimace, or something in between. Less is more and all that is solid melts into air. In the world of Li Hongqi, just because something seems stifled or hidden doesn’t mean it won’t erupt.


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