Lake August (Na Pian Hu Shui): Rotterdam Review
International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum), Jan. 24, 2014
All Ways Pictures, Xiangxi Yangheng Image Workshop
Yang Heng again brings his Hunanese hometown's landscapes to the Dutch festival with the story of a young city-dweller's encounters in his ancestral rural lands.
With his two previous features, Yang Heng has established himself as China's premiere slow-cinema operator: mostly set in his ancestral rural lands in the province of Hunan, both Betelnut (2006) and Sun Spots (2010) take delinquent-drama genre premises – the first one with two young men stealing mopeds and extorting children for money, the second with a protagonist running into trouble with local gangsters – and reduce them to the point of nearly becoming merely a litany of tableaux.
Now that Yang has relocated from Beijing back to his hometown (of Jishou), his output has become even more minimalist. The long takes and static cinematography are still there, but there's no longer even a faint hint of crime or confrontation – or even a plot for that matter. True to its simplistically denotative Chinese title – Na Pian Hu Shui, meaning "That Stretch of Water in the Lake" – Lake August is a two-hour meditation on small town ennui, something which reveals a lot about the other side of Chinese life beyond the international headlines about the country's rapid lurch towards turbo-charged cosmopolitan capitalism.
With its eye for the picturesque and the psychological complexity its austere appearance belies, Lake August should find a warm reception in international festivals dedicated to screening fresh indie productions such as Rotterdam, where the film received its world premiere on Jan. 24, as well as many an Euro-American event with an interest on Chinese indie filmmaking. International distribution might be limited to that for academic use, though, something dGenerate Films did with Betelnut.
Yang's decline to show the smallest of on-screen dramatic gestures could be seen in the film's opening scene, when a naked, middle-aged man – with his back to the camera – is seen drinking and bawling away on a boat in the middle of a lake. He staggers to rise, hollers some more, and the screens cuts to black with his jumping into the water heard but not seen. The suicide is addressed in the next (long) shot but only as a young man is seen attending a funeral; originally trained on his expressionless presence, the camera slowly turn to reveal a funereal rite on the plain, captured exasperatingly as in a painting.
Of course, there is no exquisite mourning on the young man's part. That lack of emotions at the rite is a personality trait, and Ah Li (played by Tian Li) is the epitome languor which Yang specializes in showing: this is someone who doesn't care when his window gets broken, dabbles in stale food and beer rather than getting fresh ones, falls asleep while watching hardcore porn, and barely reacts when his girlfriend announces she's getting married to someone else.
Something inside might be brewing, but the viewer will never get to know – and he at least does something when he decides to take a break from his confined existence (there's construction work all around his dilapidated tenement block) and visit the countryside, where he lodges at a boarding house in the middle of a lake, reconnects with old classmate Monkey (Yao Maosheng) and his distressed mistress Ah Fang (Shang Xiaoling). Again, the trio idles around amidst smoke and liquor, until Monkey's need to go home to his wife leads to a spark between Li and Fang.
It's a plot point which resembles Sun Spots – in which a similar love triangle also arises – but Lake August doesn't even deliver that small altercation which emerges four years ago. So it is that Monkey and Fang has a big bust-up, but when Li comes into the picture any link-up and split-up simply happens: things, like colors, fade or appear, just like the final surprise which sees the young man finally committing to another stage of his life through the unlikeliest encounter.
That final twist – if one could call it that – is only alluded to, with the film's last (long) take driven by a conversation across a flat, a new and tidy one with a baby and a retiree providing some hint about the progress of Li's life after an unshown passage of time.
It's a mise-en-scene which illustrates Yang's ability to show rather than tell: assisted by cinematographer Wang Wei and editing consultant Marie Pierre Duhamel, the director sometimes manages to wring the maximum out of a minimalist shot and camera movement – such as when a young couple rowing about a pending abortion gets on the bus and then Li gets off, a ruse which might allude to the man's past life and misdeeds. Within the tranquility, Yang has concealed meaning and vigor, ready to be drenched from this cinematic stretch of time and space.
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum), Jan. 24, 2014
Production Company: All Ways Pictures, Xiangxi Yangheng Image Workshop
Director: Yang Heng
Cast: Tian Li, Shang Xiaoling, Yao Maosheng, Yan Lin
Producer: Kong Lihong, Yang Heng
Screenwriter: Yang Heng
Director of Photography: Wang Wei
Production Designer: Liu Jinhou, Wang Mazi
Editor: Yang Heng, Marie Pierre Duhamel
Sound Designer: Yin Jie
Music Composer: AC97 Band
International Sales: Kong Lihong
No rating, 113 minutes