Edinburgh International Film Festival – Art College 1994

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Art School 1994
Directed by Liu Jian,
Starring the voices of Jia Zhangke, Zheng Dasheng, Xu Lei, Wang Hongwei, Peng Lei, Ren Ke, Xu Zhiyuan, Shen Lihui

This animated film from China took around five years to complete, so one of the film festival programmers told us before the screening, drawn in the more traditional 2D animation style, which is, of course, very labour-intensive, yet often worth it for the distinctive aesthetic and feel it can give. In the case of this Chinese, animated slacker film (there’s a phrase I have never used before!), it also suits the tone of the film and the characters very well.

Set, as you may infer from the title, in the mid-90s, the film follows the lives of a group of students at a small, but well-regarded art college in China,  Zang Xiojun (Dong Zijian) and Rabbit (Chizi) are the main focus of the film, Zang with his floppy hair and the permanently attached earphones for his music (a cassette Walkman) is more the unfocused dreamer of the group, listening to bootleg Nirvana cassettes, stifled by the insistence of his tutors that he adhere to classical styles instead of exploring new ideas (which you’d expect to be encouraged in an art college, but not here, in China of 1994, where modern Western art movements are especially reviled).

Rabbit is more pragmatic – at least when not pondering out loud on second hand philosophy he’s picked up from bits of books and hasn’t actually thought out. A bit lazier, when he does focus he is more likely to be thinking about how his degree will get him a decent paying job, how he’d like to be famous (because then “he wouldn’t have to actually paint much”, thinking about a girlfriend. It’s not that Zang doesn’t consider these things, he even joins the odd philosophic musing over beer and cigarettes, but he is far more into considering what is art, and how he can do something that is new and interesting to him in a world where it feels like so many earlier artists have done all the innovation already (at one point he even burns a pile of his art, which a more pretentious artist takes as an actual artistic piece in itself).

The film moves at a gentle pace, and the remaining cast of friends and classmates, each dealing with their studies, their hopes for the future, dreams of what they could be and want to be, versus what the world of the time will likely actually let them be, is one many of us will find very familiar. Small-town Chinese art college in the 90s, perhaps, but there is so much that is just universal there that, despite the language, it feels very familiar, and had me thinking back to my own college days and blushing to think there would be nights in our student gaffe where I or my friends would be those characters, drinking cheap booze, holding forth on what we thought were well-considered, mature, informed Great Insights, which in retrospect were hopelessly naive, because, despite thinking we were mature, we really hadn’t experienced much life yet, not really, and understood even less of it, but we were still filled with that longing for an imagined future we thought we’d make where others failed.

The 2D animation was worth those years of effort and labour; this just wouldn’t feel the same in CG animation (although there is a small use of CG for some backgrounds). Aside from the longing to shape some perfect life that will fulfil us after graduation, the film also muses on art and the nature of what art actually is, and who decides it is art or not, with one character declaring anything can be art. Jian seems to incorporate this into the animation itself, with frequent small asides that focus on something away from the characters, be it shimmering water below a bridge, a beetle trying to climb a wall, the way paint slowly peels from the wall.

This is a film that, despite being another country and culture, fits in perfectly with the likes of some Western slacker films (such as Linklater), because the youthful fears and dreams are pretty universal to most people, in any country, in any time.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

A Memoir of Love and Life in China – Our Story

Our Story: a Memoir of Love and Life in China,

Rao Pingru,

Square Peg/Vintage Books

All we children knew about them was that books were among the good things of this world.”

This was an unusual one for me, an autobiography by an 88 year old Chinese gentleman; I think the last Chinese biography I read was back in the 90s, the globally conquering Wild Swans. Rao Pingru recalls his long life spanning most of the twentieth century: childhood, adulthood, meeting the woman who would be his wife for nearly six decades, it takes in the huge events they lived through (and many did not), from the end of an ancient way of life to war then civil war and revolution, and Our Story takes us through these events, but at a personal, family level, with an elegant and warm charm; by the end of this I felt as if I could sit down with Pingru for a chat and tea.

After losing Meitang, his wife of nearly sixty years, Pingru didn’t want the stories they had shared to vanish, and writing was a good way not only to share those memories, but was no doubt quite therapeutic after his loss. This isn’t really a graphic novel, it is more prose with illustrations, rather lovely ones at that, painted by Pingru. In fact there are scenes much later in the book, in his retirement years, where he takes up painting, which Meitang teases him for not being terribly good at, that he should have started learning this skill as a child so by now he might be good! And while there is an amateur quality to those paintings, they are done with love and affection and work far better than a professional illustrator’s work would have done, because this is clearly so personal and from the heart.

Pingru’s long life spans a huge series of changes in the ancient civilisation of China, events that have shaped the present day we live in and the future to come, not just in China but globally. But Pingru keeps those vast historical moments to the personal level: childhood in the last days of an old way of life, about to vanish forever, the long war with Japan (starting long before Singapore and Pearl Harbour brought that fight to the West), the subsequent civil war (just as they think they can at last go home to their lives and families), the Maoist revolution, the “re-education” camps, the emergence of modern China. All of these are seen through the personal level, how it affected him, his family, his friends, and as such it reminds us that those big historical moments are one thing, but it is the people swept up in them who really matter, because they are us.

A recurring theme in Our Story is food, and more importantly, the sharing of food. From the little treats beloved in childhood – especially the dishes served up only at specific festivals, like the Dragon Boat festival or Chinese New Year (we all have similar memories, I’m sure), the warmth of family around you (grandparents, aunt and uncles sneaking you extra treats or little pocket money gifts), through sharing food as a married couple then as their own family grew in turn, or the special occasions when several generations of the family get together. These events stand out against the harder, leaner years – the war, the early Mao era which saw Pingru sent to a re-education camp, apart from his family for so much of the time, making those moments together even warmer, more precious.

There are glimpses into another culture’s way of life – the lovely little rituals observed, such as one to mark the first day of proper schooling, including paying homage to the venerable Confucis, the writing of elegant short poems to mark special occasions in life, the seasonal festivals. Mostly, however, Our Story shows the traits of humanity and family run deeply through us all in any decade, in any nation, there is so much family life here that anyone, anywhere, will recognise, empathise with, smile at. Pingru’s paintings add a lovely touch (in some ways taking the role of family photos), and even the designers of the book have gone the extra mile, crafting a gorgeously bound volume; it’s physically elegant (everyone I showed this to thought it very beautiful), but as with any book it is the inner life between those handsome covers that truly counts. And in Our Story it’s a beautifully warm, personal, human story of life, love and family.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Easter pic

Saint John’s church at the corner of Princes Street in Edinburgh, below the Castle, has appeared on here a number of times over the years because of the always interesting painting which the minister and some artists often put up on a board by the side of the church; often they comment on current events and morality and I always find it heartening to see them so prominently displayed so everyone travelling along Princes Street sees them. I was in town with Mel this afternoon when I noticed this one they had created for Easter; given the news today about the ceremony for the lighting of the Olympic torch it became doubly appropriate.

In case you missed it, as the head of the Beijing Olympic committee rose to make his speech at the traditional lighting of the Olympic torch before it is carried through various nations before going to China some pro-Tibet protestors got through the security. Sadly the television cameras rapidly panned away from the scene until they had been removed, which I consider to be utterly shameful, craven and cowardly. If China doesn’t like it, cobblers to them, but don’t censor such a broadcast to the rest of the world you spineless cretins. Further protests took part along the route as the first runner carried the torch, with local Greeks apparently being somewhat surprised and bemused by cries of Free Tibet, which strikes me as rather odd – considering Greece was under the dictatorial rule of the Ottoman Turks for centuries, fighting for its freedom you’d think the Greeks would have been applauding the pro-Tibetan supporters.

Personally I hope the progress of the torch around the globe continues to attract these kinds of protests – I’m tired of people making excuses about keeping politics out of this and how it detracts from the Games and from the symbol of the international spirit of co-operation and peace the torch symbolises. Let’s be honest, the minute it was decided it was okay to host the Games in a country with an appalling human rights record, a country which keeps down another culture by force, which restricts its own citizens, stifles freedom of speech (often with the help of major web companies, to their shame) and even harvests the organs of executed criminals (and in a state like China do you want to bet all those executed were vicious criminals or just people they wanted rid of?). A country who, when their leader visited London complained to the Prime Minister that people were ‘allowed’ to protest his country’s policies in public on his route in. Bollocks to them. Humiliate and embarrass the totalitarian sods at every single public venue while the world’s media eye is focussed on them. They wanted the Games for international recognition, they have to take the flipside of that which is increased visibility of the shortcomings of their country’s vicious policies too.

And if any Olympians are still whining about it all detracting from the games then to hell with them – human rights are more important than some numpty in shorts running round a track and rather than attacking demonstrators they should perhaps be questioning their own morality in taking part in games held in such a land.