Features | The Problem of Representation: Emily Tang’s Perfect Life

By Shelly Kraicer

Creatively progressive Chinese filmmakers seem to be fixated on one preoccupation, held in common with many of today’s most crucial films. This is the seeming impossibility of capturing, in narrative cinema, some accurate representation of what it’s like to live in today’s form(s) of reality. As colonized by the Hollywood hegemonic model, narrative cinema obscures this question by naturalizing—and hence falsifying—the relationship between a highly constructed faux-reality (commercial American fiction film) and something like “real life.” The former is a sham version of the latter, purging it of intractable complications and contradictions, pacifying an audience with the reassuring (or at worst, distracting) pablum of technologically virtuosic, ideologically over-determined production. In fact, it’s the technological machine that itself is now the primary motor of falsification: big bucks for big bangs has smothered cinema, extinguishing even the possibility of asking what are considered impertinent questions about art and relevance.

Something similar is happening, of course, in so-called minor or peripheral film production centres worldwide, where producers are seduced by or bullied into following the Hollywood model. (Is there really much of a difference?) Like good post-colonial, post-autonomous subjects, these dutifully stamp out what their audiences have been trained to “demand”: colourfully fake copies of their own manufactured reality, copying the American Centre’s techno-industrial production methods with at least as much fluency and verve as the Centre can currently muster (for example, Bollywood or South Korea, and, as the best case in point, Hong Kong cinema in its early ‘80s to late ‘90s heyday).

On the periphery of the peripheries are alternative cinemas, one case in point being Chinese independent cinema. Emily Tang’s second feature, Perfect Life, is the most accomplished of this current crop of Chinese films. Tang’s debut, Conjugation, was a prizewinner at the 2001 Locarno International Film Festival. The first Chinese film openly to address the June 4th Tiananmen Square democracy movement, Conjugation paints in depressive tones the emotional aftermath of the event for several student participants. This subdued mood piece portrays shattered idealism and dead-end lives: the chill settling over a violently subdued society is palpable, rudely truncating youth without any hint of possible futures.

Perfect Life is another matter entirely. Starting from the lives of two marginal women, imagined and real, Perfect Life opens worlds newly felt and newly imagined, with possibilities that are now ours to explore. It’s not by chance that Tang has grounded her film an intimate, specifically female- (and arguable feminist-) centred world. Tang’s imagination is gender-inflected, in tiny, intimately radical ways. Winner of the Dragons and Tigers award at the 2008 Vancouver International Film Festival, Perfect Life also takes utterly seriously the dilemma of how to represent current reality inside fiction. Tang’s solution to the reality problem is to assert, implicitly, that the task is simultaneously formally impossible, urgently necessary, and magically achievable. Perfect Life shows exactly how far one is able to go if one dares take this thesis to its logical limit.

The film opens as if it is a “normal,” seamless narrative fiction. Li Yueying—an amazingly daring, off-balance, and emotionally affecting performance by newcomer Yao Qianyu—is a young woman living in snowy-grey, grungy Shenyang (a city in China’s post-industrial rustbelt). We first see Yueying auditioning for a role in performance troupe—shades of Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000)—but she clearly is deluding herself: she has no musical skills whatsoever. As we find out more about her, her capacity for self-delusion and self-invention take on impressive, and even disturbing, overtones. Her fantasy life bleeds into her “real” life in a way that simultaneously undermines, decentres, and perversely liberates her. She seems confused about her family: she claims her father is dead, but then concocts a story to her mother, separated from her father, about how he wants to contact the family. (She actually seems to have no contact with him.) Yueying also maintains an ambiguously triangular relationship with her would-be boyfriend and their rather unhinged mutual friend Zengzeng. And she seems responsible for her younger brother, but is oblivious to his strange problems at high school: he’s failing all his subjects, and selling soft-core porn magazines to the other stdents.

But Yueying walks out of these identities (non-lover, non-daughter, non-sister) when she gets a job as a maid at a down-at-the-heels business hotel. There she floats in and out of her work responsibilities, and is caught trying on a flight attendant’s uniform (shades of Chungking Express?) she finds in the room of a one-legged male guest, Wang Honglin. Wang subsequently takes an interest in her. She sullenly allows herself to be wooed, to the point that she’s enlisted in a shady delivery deal that he undertakes (he claims he’s an art dealer but seems more like an underworld go-between). On her trip south with Wang’s mysterious merchandise, she reinvents herself yet again, at least in her imagination, as a bride with a future in Shenzhen or even, just across the border, in Hong Kong.

But this is only one thread of the film. The second thread, which exists almost completely independently from the first, is the tale of Hong Kong resident Jenny, who came from the mainland several years ago, worked some time as a bar girl, got married, and has two daughters. Jenny is undergoing a messy divorce, and the film gives glimpses of various stages of this process: Jenny’s anger at her ex-husband, her despair at the loneliness of living in HK, and her slightly elegant, slightly tawdry, work as a dancer for hire in a tacky, nostalgic tacky HK dance club.

The two story lines are intertwined in alternating segments. At first Yueying’s story dominates; later Jenny’s material becomes more prominent. An audience grows quite quickly to accept the two stories as existing in some common “story space,” a common reality that somehow naturally accommodates both, and allows an easy alternation between the two. This is all the more remarkable when we consider that the two threads of the film are in completely different modes. The first—Yueying’s story—is fiction. The second, Jenny’s, is, in fact, documentary. There are stylistic, visual, and formal clues that Tang employs to distinguish between the “fiction” and the “documentary.” Jenny’s story is shot in handheld, lower definition DV, with natural lighting, in actual locations. The shots have a vérité feel and are noteworthy for Jenny’s natural “performance.” Yueying’s section, on the other hand, is composed of professionally modulated, complex, performances, which are nevertheless thoroughly anchored in the “realist mode” of craft performance technique. Its shots are exquisitely composed in high-definition video, though not through static shots: the camera is in almost constant motion, catching the flow of mini-epiphanic moments that Tang’s careful mise en scène provides, carefully framing action through multiple mirrors, behind windows, grids, and perfectly placed obstacles.

The fictional sections of Perfect Life are lit in an extraordinarily expressive way: the light that reaches cinematographer Lai Yiu-fai’s largely handheld camera seem to be emerging from a deep, dark vacuum. The swathes of green, yellow, orange, and grey light that the camera does discover amidst this pervasive gloom feel like affirmations, shards of light that are seemingly willfully denying an overwhelming sense of non-being. The light is aberrant, irrational, but alive, as is Yueying herself.

And the camera itself exerts an active pressure on Yueying in particular: it moves in very close, probing, seeking details, and then dancing back. Tang’s and Lai’s camera is vibrantly (though always elegantly) active. Indeed, Yueying’s sullen, down-turned face, her highly emotional introversion, her forlorn looks down to the ground, all seem prompted as much by the pressure of Tang’s camera’s gaze as by the character’s inner feelings. So the film’s fictional character seems as aware of and responsive to the camera as is Jenny, the documentary subject. The latter is either caught by Tang’s DV cam from a certain distance away—apparently hidden to participants other than Jenny in some scenes that it’s recording—or else she appears to be simultaneously completely cooperative and confidently oblivious to the filmmaker documenting her personal life at such close range. At other times she addresses Tang and her camera directly, openly, with a frankness that’s the opposite of Yueying’s introversion.

These two characters are placed into the same cinematic text for the film’s length. Viewers are given the opportunity to ponder if they can be seen as versions of the same women in different modes, different times, or different spaces. Are they perhaps before and after images of the same person, or of women in similar situations? Are they similar, uncannily parallel lives? At two moments, the film teases us with glimpses of a concrete, visual connection between Jenny and Yueying. But the question of the relationship between the two is not a question of being, but rather a question of images, of representation. Fundamentally, their simultaneous existence is a montage effect. Editing makes them co-exist, co-inhabit a world in the film.

On a formal level, the film shouldn’t work at all. In different hands, this material would be mobilized simply to show the tensions between documentary and fiction: it would be a provocation to the audience, and the clash of modes would be marked, visible on the surface, demanding the audience to do some mental work and attempt a synthesis or reject the seeming contradiction. In fact, Jia Zhangke’s recent work has been exploring this mode of provocation in recent years. He has developed from the documentary/fiction diptych Dong/Still Life (2006) (where the separation of documentary and fiction is ostensibly maintained across films, but in fact is allowed to spill over when each film quotes the other’s material) to the radical provocation of 24 City, in which actual documented interviews alternate with plainly fictionalized “interviews” performed by well known actresses Joan Chen, Lu Liping, and Zhao Tao.

One can argue that Tang’s primary fictional source for Perfect Life is Fruit Chan’s masterpiece Durian Durian (2000), which places a single fictional female character in two spaces and two stories: a prostitute in Hong Kong, and a graduate at home in China’s northwest, trying to imagine her future. Yet, it seems clear that she is aware of and is in some way responding to Jia’s recent work. Tang’s producer/editor (and real-life partner) Chow Keung is Jia’s long-time filmmaking partner; Perfect Life was produced by Jia and Chow’s company XStream Pictures (and indeed has Jia himself as one of the executive producers). I’d even venture to say that Tang’s film goes one step beyond Jia’s while grappling with the same formal problems. A contrast of modes is activated by each in different ways. 24 City poses the issue in intellectualized terms: an actively engaged audience is challenged to think outside the narrative, through a clever strategy that might be called Brechtian-at-one-remove. The artificially of the film’s switchbacks between documentary and fiction is underlined in the text by clues that are relatively implicit (a Chinese audience will recognize the movie stars; acting styles are imprinted with variously graduated levels of artificiality; intra-textual references play rather knowingly with, in particular, Joan Chen’s persona, character, and roles in other films). 24 City invites us to work out the details of its contrast of modes. It ratchets the audience back at one remove, highlighting the playful constructedness of its text to mobilize an analytical set of responses from an engaged set of spectators.

Tang’s solution is fully to engage with the contradiction between documentary and fiction, but her method, her craft, and her control of both kinds of material works towards an astonishing synthesis on affective, emotional terms, a synthesis that Jia’s films have pointed the way towards. It’s not analytically rigorous to say so, but I can’t avoid suggesting that Tang achieves something like cinema magic with Perfect Life. Cinema is an art, after all, and in art there’s room for the ineffable, for some kind of artistic “magic.” It’s uncanny how she fuses two genres, two modes, two subjects, two times, two locations. A theatrical audience watching the film is subtly transformed, as the film’s own special intimate power and beauty radiate in unexpected and compelling ways from a big screen. Any sort of built-in contradictions inherent in the film’s structure simply vanish: the film asserts itself as a coherent whole, and we see and feel it as such. I’m tempted to liken this effect to transmutation, wherein Tang has taken each element and set it in such precise balance with the other, provoking the film to release a kind of sympathetic harmonic vibration between documentary and drama. It’s a synthesis that you feel, a rare synthesis of opposites that opens affective and intellectual possibilities for an audience.

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