J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

China Institute Film Course: Foliage

They were like the Sharks and the Jets of the Cultural Revolution (but without song). Two competing PLA work teams have been sent down to the Yunnan countryside. They come from different backgrounds, but both are very interested in Ye Xing-yu. When she falls for the rebellious leader of the rival team, it inevitably leads to heartbreak in Lü Yue’s Foliage, which is the subject of this week’s Chinese Film Short Course lecture at the China Institute in New York.

Ye never felt like she belonged in the Yunnan camp—and who could blame her for that? However, it is not such a bad fit for her childhood pal and de facto boyfriend Yuan Ding-guo, who generally prefers to lower his head and plug away. Ye desperately hopes for a discharge to care for her widower father after his stroke, but her status as an “intellectual” will make that difficult. At least she will not be late returning from a visit home, thanks to the intercession of Liu Si-mong.

Naturally, Liu is quite taken with Ye. After years of Yuan’s quiet bashfulness, she is also rather impressed with his forthright interest. Unfortunately, a pickpocketing incident in Red Post Town (masterminded by Liu) will irreparably poison relations between the two work groups. Ye will try to act as a peacemaker, but her platoon will not have it. Instead, they intend to use her as bait for Yuan, whether she cooperates or not.

Foliage gives viewers a different perspective on the Cultural Revolution, but it is still not what you would describe as positive. Ye’s platoon are frequently derided as the “intellectuals” and “class enemies” due to their education and families’ professional backgrounds. In contrast, Liu’s platoon are more rustic types. They might very well have volunteered just to have a job, whereas Yuan’s colleagues frequently profess to believe in their mission (which seems to entail senselessly despoiling the land, from what we see). It is the same old class warfare, but turned inside-out, standing on its head. Frankly, it makes you wonder which team Bernie Sanders would throw his lot in with, if he were there (but he would surely expect to be part of the Gang of Four).

Still, the extent to which everyone loses their heads over Ye at a time so fraught with irrational ideological violence somewhat stretches credibility, even if she is played by Shu Qi, who it must be admitted, absolutely lights up the screen. She effectively develops some radically different screen chemistry with her two competing leading men. You can feel her comfort with Fan Bing’s Yuan, like an old shoe, and the passion that percolates with Liu Ye’s Liu Si-mong. However, Qi Huan steals scene after scene as Ye’s cute but sadly tragic best friend Wei Hung.

Fortunately, the platoon factions are not productive enough at raping the environment to deny Lü his lovely natural backdrops. Best known as a cinematography, he has shot several Zhang Yimou films, Joan Chen’s Cultural Revolution drama, Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl, and Feng Xiaogang’s explicitly jingoistic Assembly and Back to 1942, so he has range and flexibility. He helms the love triangle with great sensitivity, conveying all the angst and yearning, without descending into melodrama. As a result, Foliage is a wonderfully sad and sweeping story of love sabotaged by the macro forces of history, highly recommended, if you can find it. Indeed, there should be no shortage of historical and political context to explore when Foliage is the lecture topic this Wednesday (5/25) at the China Institute.

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