In case you stumbled this site for the first or are a visitor who may not know it I live and work in China. I want to make that little information clear from the start since the film I am writing about in this post, 2007’s Ye Che (Night Train), is one of the more accurate glimpses into life in modern China I have seen in a Chinese film since coming here. Most of the films being produced here are these atrociously boring historical epics that I cannot sit through. Those films seem to be trying to follow the path set by Li Ang’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that won the 2003 best foreign film Oscar award. Almost everything coming out of the mainland is some sort of epic set in the Tang or Qin dynasties and have a tinsel feel of the old Hong Kong ‘wu xi pian’ (basically kung fu films) that are not only safe as far as the Chinese censors go but might just, all the directors hope, win another Oscar. A prize. There are other films that come out of the mainland but I never really see any of them. Stupid comedies and propaganda films that show how evil the Japanese occupiers were (and I guess they were actually, but it seems time to let some of that go) and still are or how glorious was the founding of modern communist China back in the days of Mao Zi Dong and his little gang. Most of the new films from the mainland are lackluster and vapid. But that is not to say that there are not original and gifted film makers on the mainland whose visions run contrary to the efficient propaganda machine here. It just means their films are often financed and shown outside of the country and the versions shown here are censored and edited to death. As was the case with the Blind Mountain (Mang Shan), released the same year as Night Train. Blind Mountains tell the story of a college girl in modern who is drugged and kidnapped and held prisoner in a remote mountain village and forced to bear a child for a village man and his family. She is assaulted and beaten by the family and villagers routinely. It is a reality that this happens in modern 21st century China still but that is not the type of film the government here want to promote.
I had never even heard of Ye Che until I saw it listed on one of my weird bittorrent sites. My wife had never heard of it nor had any of my Chinese students. There is little information on the net about the film actually. The film was funded and promoted by French and American sources and played at 2007 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard Program section and lost out to Blind Mountain. It won various other awards in festivals in Buenos Aires and Warsaw, but the film is all but unknown here in the land it was filmed in. The movie is written, directed and produced by second time director Diao Na Li. It was shot around Baoji, the city he lives in his native Sha’anxi province. The film stars Liu Dan (who won best actress in the 2008 Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema) as the life weary court bailiff Wu Hong Yan. Among Hong Yan’s duties is the carrying out of executions of convicted females prisoners. In China arrests, trails, sentencings and executions normally take place in the space of about a week. We see the end result of a ‘trial’ of a young woman named Zhang Lingling who is convicted of voluntary manslaughter of a man who was forcing himself upon her sexually. For the crime of manslaughter she is sentenced to death. The judge shows disgust at her fainting spell and the man’s family assaults her on the staircase. Wu Hang Yan yawns in boredom during the court room proceedings. She later carries out her duty as executioner by a putting a single bullet into the back of the woman’s head. It seems Hong Yan really does like what she does and when she is not doing her dreary work she is looking for love at single’s dance halls and dating services. She only seems to meet psychos and scam artists. Her is a mundane and depressing routine and she seems to even envy her prostitute neighbor’s lifestyle in ways.
She becomes aware she is being followed by a man she does not know. She confronts the stranger in a tunnel and believes he is from the dating service. Nothing could be further from the truth. The man is Zhang Lingling’s broken and despondent husband Li Jun (Qi Dao). Li Jun has been transferred from his job in a metal factory to a sort or caretaker or watchman at a hydraulic plant on a river. His sister asked that her daughter be giving over to Jun Li for caring but the child’s father will have nothing to do with it. Jun Li is shattered and more than a little over the edge. Despite his lowly job and pay (about $25 a month) Wu Hong Yan becomes attracted to him and they initiate a sexual relationship. Some parts are reminiscent of Monster’s Ball as Hong Yan comes to realize who Jun Li really is and why he has been following her and yet she is so lost, lonely and guilt ridden in life she finds her options wanting.
The film is bleak and painful. It moves at a slow pace that may alient many viewers (as it did one friend whom I showed it to here). But it may also draw in many others. It is shot sans a soundtrack and many of the shots linger on the blue and gray landscape of the industrial city the characters find themselves trapped in. The dialog is minimal and the characters are often immersed in a dark, depressing photography style. It gives a view into the lives of Chinese people that one will not see in the propaganda crap that Beijing wants the world to see. The hopelessness of it all is shown in Liu Dan’s heartbreaking performance. I know that sounds cliché as hell but sometimes clichés are the only appropriate language to use. The final scene that involves a cart horse is gut-wrenching and many western viewers will be offended as it is all real. This movie is brilliant but excruciating. I cannot recommend you see this one enough. I am distressed there is so little information on the film on the net and I could not find a trailer even. I made up a clip myself and uploaded it to Viddler. I did not hardcode the subtitles onto the clips but I think the scenes explain themselves well enough.