starring Liu Tianhao, Miao Fuwen, Sun Guilin, Yue Sengyi
written and directed by Wang Chao
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover I feel pain when I have to pan movies like Wang Chao's The Orphan of Anyang. It's a film that has absolutely no bad faith on the part of the filmmaker--he wanted to show a slice of Chinese life the censors wouldn't normally show, and that's exactly what he does. But his conception is so sparse and so dour that it winds up capsizing these good intentions, resulting in an underwritten and acquiescent film in which we can't identify the characters beyond their functions in the narrative. It's not a film that makes you angry at having been cheated, it just makes you numb with anomie and disconnected from the action onscreen--surely not what was intended.
The plot could be that of a silent movie. Yu Dagang (Sun Guilin) is a recently laid-off factory worker in his forties; he has no wife, no children, and now no job, and is consequently quite desperate. His apparent salvation arrives in the form a baby left at a noodle stand: the attached note offers 200 yuan in upkeep, and with no other prospects he meets the child's mother, prostitute Yanli (Zhu Jie), in order to make the arrangements. Unfortunately, the father is Boss Side (Yue Sengyi), a leukemia-ridden gang lord who is looking to have an heir, and he searches for the baby just as Dagang and Yanli begin to form a relationship.
While the above is a perfectly good springboard for a movie, as it stands, it's just a springboard--nobody uses it to dive into the drink. A big problem is that all of the characters are blank and unknowable--there's nothing internal about the film, nothing to indicate their feelings except our own distaste at the anti-aesthetic surroundings that offer instant gloom. True, Sun is excellent as the sheepish bachelor hero, giving shading to his aloneness and lack of comprehension, but an actor alone can't save a role when we have no idea about what drives his behaviour. Wang doesn't seem willing to go beyond outside appearances, and while that works for the ratty whorehouse that Boss Side runs, it mostly means the same grungily alienated surroundings for the entire movie.
To an extent, I can understand why Wang wants to show such grungy alienation--he wants to divorce you from the pipe dreams that his characters might have and show you how truly lost they are in the material world. Wang's contemporary Jia Zhang-ke can be said to have the same reasons for trafficking in a similar aesthetic in his much-lauded Platform and Unknown Pleasures; it's no doubt their attempt to divorce themselves from the shallow, colorific exoticism of the Fifth Generation directors. But Jia is more of a thinker than Wang is, and he compensates for his visual blankness with an intellectual landscape that teems with life--to say nothing of the social circumstances that drive that life. Wang doesn't know how to make those connections--he merely knows that layoffs are bad, crime is bad, and suffering is bad, which most people could have figured out on their own. He merely mires us in some surroundings, and it's not enough to keep us watching.
There's no denying that The Orphan of Anyang is a sensitive film--it's a reclamation project in which Wang tries to save the story of someone who would otherwise sink beneath the radar of Chinese cinema. But his salvage job doesn't go far enough. People aren't simply camera subjects, they're autonomous individuals seething with desires and pain in ways that need to be visualized as much as their external suffering. This means that this Orphan is still looking for a parent that will bring out its potential, instead of a guardian who only sees it from the outside. Originally published: November 22, 2002.