Rejected by his wife, Lin begins to spend his time following his son’s best friend, Xiao Hao (Qin Hao), in order to get to know his son better.
As per other films that I have been by Wang Xiaoshuai, the film is contemplative in style. That is to say, the films move at a ‘gentle’ pace, and slowly allow audiences to accrue information about the characters, who typically are haunted by a loss of some sort.
In Shiqi sui de dan che/Beijing Bicycle (China, 2001), the lost object is a bicycle. In Qing hong/Shanghai Dreams, the thing is lost is the family’s life in Shanghai, to which they want to return. And in Er di/Drifters (China/Hong Kong, 2003), that lost object functions in part as both a place (a return home from the USA) and a son whom the father (Duan Long) wishes to see. Here, however, the son is dead – having been gunned down by police while attacking people with a knife in a supermarket. But the same motif of loss and a return home are still there.
The plot is important and can read ‘allegorically’: Lin represents a Chinese patriarch who has lost contact with and finds it difficult to understand the younger generation, who in turn feel adrift and without clear guidance in the absence of a father figure. This suggests a China that, tentatively at best, is feeling a rift between generations – not least because of the breakdown of the family unit in the face of the need to travel to work (Lin at sea), and also because of the fast-changing face of contemporary China, shaped extensively as it is by new technologies.
For, Lin obsessively looks at a Chinese equivalent of YouTube at images of his son’s crime – captured on a CCTV camera in the supermarket and placed online. He even has a still image of his son from this video blown up (twice) on to large photographs – in order that better he can contemplate what his son had become before his death.
And yet, these images of Lin Bo are pixellated, such that he is a blur of colour squares, recognisable perhaps at a distance, but fragmented and unrecognisable up close. Technology – here, digital imagery – seems to have played a part in this breakdown of the family unit, such that it has rendered Lin Bo unrecognisable to his father.
The mobile phone also seems to play a key role in the changing face of Chinese youth, with Xiao Hao in particular being literally chained to his phone (which he carries in his pocket, but keeps on a chain). Father Lin has a chance to speak to Xiao Hao’s father; the latter knows that his son works as a dancer in a nightclub and he does not see it as being genuine work, one gets the impression, but at least Xiao Hao is paid to do this. In other words, the older generation does not understand the bright lights and loud noises in which the younger generation immerses itself (most arrestingly seen when we go with Lin Bo into the deafening and neon-lit club – which serves as a stark contrast to the other scenes set in and around Chongqing, particularly its pastel seaside palette and its ‘blues’).
Notably, it is the moment that Xiao Hao does not answer his phone that, in part, leads to Lin Bo’s death. In need of help in the supermarket, Lin Bo calls Xiao Hao, but the latter does not respond. But whether answering the phone would have ‘saved’ Lin Bo or not, one gets the impression that relationships are not direct in contemporary Chongqing among the urban youth, but are instead highly mediated and dependent on real time telephonic technologies.
It turns out that Lin Bo was more or less stalking a girl who did not necessarily love him as he felt that he loved her. And it is his desperation to have her that, seemingly, leads him to commit his futile crime.
Here, then, we have a sense in which the new generation follows the lure of images, particularly of woman as image, perhaps, such that their human relationships are dysfunctional and idealised, as opposed to tangible and real.
That said, it is not as if Lin’s relationship with his wife is any better. She violently rejects him for most of the film and in one important scene she throws at him the newspaper report about Lin Bo’s death: Lin Bo has become himself pure image (both in print and online) and this copy (without an original?) is the closest that either parent seems to be able to get to their son. Even Xiao Hao, Lin Bo’s closest friend, finds Lin Bo an odd fish and seems to let the latter hang out with him out of sympathy and a sense of needing to protect him, as opposed genuinely to liking him.
If Lin Bo is something of a mystery, then, perhaps the only thing that ‘explains’ him is his insistence that his father will one day return and that he will be able to go fishing with him. Hence Lin Bo’s continual returns (in flashback) to the sea, where he hangs out for seemingly interminable periods of time, looking out to sea.
If there has been a breakdown in family and more general human relations, then, the youth in particular feels that it is because of the absent father that this has taken place.
Do we read the film, then, as being an allegory of the capitalisation/globalisation of China, with the influx of telecommunication technologies that this entails, and in need of a strong but now absent father figure (one cannot help but think back to the Communist regime, e.g. under Mao) to ‘sort it out’?
If – and this is a strong if – there is a sense of this at all, it is only more ambiguous than the last paragraph lets on. By which I mean that the film does not pose any solutions to these conundrums, and it is all the better for it. What has been done cannot be undone, and while the film engages at length in the trauma of loss (with Lin even tracking down the police officer who killed his son, who professes that he might get some ‘peace’ out of the meeting for himself rather than simply helping the father to understand what happened), and is instilled with a sense of regret, at the same time, the film seems determined not to explain the past too much (we never fully understand why Lin left), but rather to deal with the present.