Beijing Flickers

Beijing Flickers


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

San Bao is having a bad day. His dog ran away. He's in trouble with the law. His girlfriend's left him for another, richer, man. He's been sacked from his job as a postal worker on "the semi-automatic sorting line". The only rational response is to get drunk. So drunk that he eats a glass.

It's an act of despair among many in a film whose central arguments are that avarice corrupts and the big city anonymises, dehumanises, confronting folk with multi-storey monuments to inequality. This is not new territory, and while there's novelty in seeing them happening in Beijing it's not enough to recommend it. Cities have personalities, filmic profiles - New York's the city so famous that other cities impersonate it, London with its classical training now typecast in genre movies, LA an empty celebrity with bizarre staying power, Toronto the one that's got a full IMDB page of bit-parts in TV shows and B-movies. Beijing here is itself anonymous - there are the towers, true, the occasional Foo Dog outside a nightclub, a swirl of motorways, but just as San Bao's is a more or less generic big city story of a person struggling to find their way, Beijing here is just a place.

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Now, in fairness, there's something to be said for anonymising - The Driver, say, which, for all that the city is LA, strips from it anything recognisable, occuring in a hinterland of parking garages and warehouses and a bus station's plaza, the same sort of identikit landscape that Drive winds through. In a China Post warehouse, San Bao's just a component in a process, eminently replaceable. There's even more thematic weight as he loses his voice, his home, his friends. Abandonment is everywhere - even when recovered San Bao chooses not to use it; while he's heard in voiceover he's mute to everyone but the audience.

There are other stories, of theft, of deceit, of naked ambition - of hiding, of betrayal, of despair. Central to it is Duan Bowen's performance, we're seeing the world through his eyes, hearing his thoughts even if nobody else is. It's more than solid. Director Zhang Yuan is capable, and while there are some neat touches in the staging of a bar brawl, a post-break-up gig, and in a brace of suicide attempts, there are no ostentatious directorial flourishes. Also with the assistance of Kong Ergou, Li Xinyun, and Yang Yishu, it's the script that really sings - even literally, indeed, as San Bao's band-leading pal You Zi (played by Li Xinyun) treats a layered audience (on-screen and us) to less-than-cheery ditties such as Empty City, Romantic Crime, and Stockholm [Syndrome] Patient. There are moments of levity, true, but when the central group are elaborating revenge fantasies, it's mugging at the gallows.

Beyond You Zi and San Bao, whose run of luck continues when he discovers his house is to be demolished, there's Wang Ming (Lu Yulai), San Bao's long suffering best friend, and San Bao's hospital roommate Xiao Shi (Shi Shi) a poet to whom nobody will listen. They're a miserable bunch but, despite it, likeable. Good performances aided by a script with poetic interludes are what gives Beijing Flickers its strength.

It's inspired by a photo exhibition by its director that was displayed at UCCA. Called Unspoiled Brats, it features a series of portraits and interviews with folk born in the Eighties. People like bullied parking attendants who are browbeaten and humiliated and given temporary custody of Maseratis and Ferraris. Indie bands looking for the big time, people expressing themselves in traditional ways drowned out by mobile phones and passing traffic. The depiction of this generation whose boats have not been lifted by China's economic tide seems a fair one, it's just that as a film it's perhaps not as interesting as a documentary would have been. The subtitling is good, though there were a couple of moments where it seemed that they were semi-subliminal, brief flashes of brief thoughts, perhaps, but that could be your reviewer reading too much into it - film festivals do little good to the already addled, so it could have been an artifact of a too early morning. Less explicable by under-caffeination, Liu Yijun's score is good, but its use is heavy-handed at times, even jarring. The voiceover too can be a bit clumsy, but on the whole it succeeds.

Beijing Flickers' biggest problem is that it it reduces a potentially fascinating location to a mere place. While it's looking at a generation dispossessed of good fortune in their capital city, on the wrong side of the tracks, literally on the wrong track, these are (like Edinburgh's trams) tracks on a road that's already well travelled. While the film intermittently shines an intriguing light on those left behind by China's transformation, it doesn't quite catch.

Reviewed on: 20 Jun 2013
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When his life falls apart, a man finds support and positive opportunities in a community of outcasts.

Director: Zhang Yuan

Writer: Zhang Yuan

Starring: Duan Bowen, Lu Yulai, Shi Shi, Li Xinyun, Han Wenwen

Year: 2012

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: China


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