Thomas Mao

Thomas Mao


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

In 2008, deep in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, a Chinese goatherd (Mao Yan) is trying to keep a stray mongrel from having its way with his own dog. "My baby is a pure-bred German shepherd, not somebody for you to play around with," he protests, before turning to console his pedigreed bitch with the promise: "I'll find another German for you, a foreigner." As if on cue, a Westerner (Thomas Rohldewald) arrives. "I'm an artist, I'm here to paint pictures," the newcomer tells his rustic host – not that either man can understand a word that the other says.

The next few days will transform the uneasy cultural miscegeny between these two men into an absurd comedy of errors. Incongruously sporting a Red Army cap, the European portrait artist struggles to adjust to sharing his accommodation with ducks, sheep and even (apparently) a tiger. Meanwhile the farmer, frustrated by the linguistic divide, resorts to forcing his guest to drink the local liquor at gunpoint, and boasts with drunken aggressiveness of China's new-found Olympic supremacy: "You are all going down, including America... the Chinese people now kick fucking ass!".

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And then there are this odd couple's vividly realised dreams – whether of high-kicking, wire-flying wuxia rivals/lovers, or of snowy alien invasions – that allegorise the two men's heightened sense of contentious otherness. Indeed, Thomas Mao begins with a famous conundrum from ancient Taoist philosopher Chuang-tse on the metamorphic power of dreams ("Was it Chuang-tse who dreamed he was the butterfly, or the butterfly who dreamed he was Chuang-tse?") - and a lengthy coda will reveal that this entire Mongolian idyll has been a playfully oneiric distortion of the real relationship between Thomas and Mao.

Written and directed by poet and novelist Zhu Wen, and starring the filmmaker's two friends as something like both themselves and their opposites, Thomas Mao is an experimental exploration of the relations between East and West (the film's Chinese title means literally "small east and west "), the traditional and the modern, country and city, as well as the mysterious links between dreams and reality.

If that sounds like hard work, the film is also surreally funny, with a wry, understated wit that perhaps recalls Aki Kaurismäki at his least sombre. Thomas Mao, though, is a true original, collapsing and cross-fertilising all manner of shifting ideologies in the best unlikely pairing since Laurel and Hardy. It is a portrait which, however abstract, captures the essence of its subjects, their interrelationship, and art itself.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2010
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When a Westerner comes to stay in the guest room of a shepherd's house, an unlikely friendship develops.
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Director: Zhu Wen

Writer: Zhu Wen

Starring: Mao Yan, Thomas Rohldewald, Jin Zi, Ye Feng, Gou Zi

Year: 2010

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: China


London 2010

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