Directors Lounge 2008 • Berlin, february 7-17

Saturday, February 16

China is Naked

(S.S.) A continuation of Marina Foxley's Chinese selections...The last two films shown had quite a lot in common. The first, Murmur, (Zhang Xuezhou 4 min 2005) was a short about two girls living next door to each other on the 11th floor of an apartment building. The film begins with one of the women on a cell phone having a very loud metaphysical conversation in front of her neighbor. "Yeah he died...True true true...but I'm not you. I'm me. I am only myself." Suddenly the neighbor girl gets a cell call as well as the two women are riding up on a elevator. The metaphysical bug seems to be going around because the second girl has a similar conversation, "I am not you. I'm only myself..." But her call ends with her becoming increasingly exasperated and then screaming into the phone and promptly hanging up. It's rather a funny moment because it's sort of intimate and weird. The presence of her neighbor in the elevator seems to have no effect on her behavior. She screams and doesn't even acknowledge her neighbor as the two get off the elevator together. But soon they are both in their apartments in their bedrooms trying to fall asleep. The camera keeps jumping from the two women in their separate beds to a sort of other realm where the two women are sleeping naked together int he same bed, entwining their bodies in vaguely sexual positions. As we watch the women in these various dimensions, alone in their beds and then together in their coiled embraces, the idea of who one is and whether one actually exists seems especially pressing. Somehow these two women are interconnected and the filmmaker wants us to see that this relationship is stronger than reality. Who we are on an elevator is different than who we are when we sleep and different still from the id driven realm of our dreams, our archetypal shared consciousness.

In the last film, Equality, (Xu Li, 24 min 2005) the idea of group consciousness versus individual will is taken to an extreme point. Homosocial relationships play a major role in this film. The term homosiciality is a sociological term which describes the relationships between members of the same sex, especially men. It is not obliged to be sexual relationships, merely same-sex social interactions. The term homosociality was advanced by Eve Sedgwick in her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Sedgwick's contribution is the notion that the boundaries between the social and the sexual are blurry; thus homosociality and homosexuality are connected and can never fully be disentangled. She acknowledges that the nature of this boundary varies from society to society and from era to era, and even within one society it can differ between women and men.

The homo-social bond becomes the ultimate oppressive force for one member of the group who doesn't want to go along with a plan to swap girlfriends. The group leader instructs all of the guys to gang up on this one dude, chase him through a beach at low tide, push him down into the mud and then tear his clothes off of his body with the threat to burn one piece of clothes every five seconds until he submits to the groups will. In the mean time, the character of this group is made evident by the filmmaker with shots of them endlessly smoking cigarettes, horsing around and making crude jokes to one another. It's difficult to compare the nature of a Chinese buddy film to that of an American or western film. There are codes of conduct that are just not part of my experience and therefore hard to draw conclusions from. For example, in one very funny scene after they leave the beach, the whole gang dresses in stolen women's clothing and in the middle of a two lane highway they perform a ridiculous surreal burlesque dance. The sight of so many young thuggy guys dancing in women's clothes with totally serious expressions on their face is enough to make Mathew Barney regret he wasn't the director. But what does it mean? to China? Is crossdressing the same sort of light and playful activity it is in the US, as long as it's only indulged in the rarest circumstances? Or is it a sort of extreme social taboo being enacted on screen by a fearless director? I suppose the only way to learn the subtleties of Chinese social customs is through films like this one and plenty of exposure to the new maverick films being made there now. Either that or a really expensive ticket to Shanghai.

Further befuddlement over what is homo-social and what is homosexual and how it is all intended to be interpreted arises when the stray member of the gang finally gives in to the group and they head out to a spa to prepare themselves for the girlfriend swap. The gang spends the last part of the film totally naked in close proximity. Locker room behavior is rampant with butt slapping, group showers and light wrestling. All I could think the whole time I was watching this long spa sequence is how trusting the actors were of their director to let him film them so intimately. The homosexual overtones were unmistakable to me, especially during a long take of water beading off the back of one of the guys. The sweaty sensual world of the spa was intoxicating to behold. It was as if the rules of normal conduct had been suspended in this environment. Martina Foxley, whom I spoke to after the film, considers this director to be a sensualist and she also told me that in China, nudity amongst all male company is nothing shameful. It's absolutely normal. Mixed gender nudity is quite improper however, and when the parade of girlfriends comes waltzing through the spa totally unperturbed by the rampant male nudity, this moment is sort of shocking for a Chinese audience. The butt slapping is par for the course.

Equality has two levels of meaning--the equality of one girlfriend in exchange for another; and the all for one/ one for all attitude of the gang. In both circumstances the notion of equality is problematic. The film can be seen as a microcosm of the relationship between the will of the group and the will of the individual. The group will wins out over the individual but the conscience of the individual is strong and the guilt and shame over his behavior is palpable.

more soon...S.S.