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With his signature black-and-white template, sumptuous long takes and fatalistic stories unfolding in his country’s bleak provincial hinterlands, Chinese director Zhang Miaoyan – who admits to having spent his time at UC Berkeley devouring films he couldn’t see back home – has long been compared to slow-cinema supremo Béla Tarr. A Corner of Heaven will consolidate this link further: just as the Hungarian auteur increasingly moved away from narratives and plots during his career, Zhang has now stripped his cinema of the high drama which shaped his first two films (the carnality-addled drama Xiaolin Xiaoli of 2007 and the 2011 story of AIDS-infected villagers of Black Blood).
But less, in this case, has turned out to be more. With his fluid camerawork and a minimalist rite-of-passage premise wrought large into a metaphor about a country losing its soul, A Corner of Heaven is a visually striking tale about a boy’s (and his generation’s) loss of innocence and hope.
Backed by French producers and also grants from the Busan and Rotterdam film festivals – where the film, after bowing at Vancouver in September, made its Asian and European premieres – the film’s gloomy view of China has little to no hope of being shown on home turf. With its rigorous style, reflective themes and heartrending performances from its non-professional child-actors, however, berths at festivals and independent-themed showcases should be guaranteed.
The film’s setting, in a village around the Yellow River in central China, augurs with Zhang’s intent of reflecting on the state of the nation. The waterway has always been known as the source and saddle of Chinese civilization; here, however, it only plays host to dereliction, destitution and despair – a devastation which propels a woman to sneak out of her house-cave one day, seemingly never to return, as seen in the beginning of the film.
Shocked and shattered by this maternal abandonment, her sheep-herding boy (Guo Xinjiang) – who sets off to find her. His passage from the underdeveloped countryside to the modern humdrum of the city is symbolized by the change in transport: first on foot, then on a horse-drawn cart and finally a container truck passing underneath spaghetti junctions.
Belying its title – which might have been a nod to how Chinese netizens have, in blind faith or mockery, described their economically booming country as the “Heavenly Dynasty” (“Tian chao“) – A Corner of Heaven offers no feel-good melodrama like Zhang Yimou‘s Not One Less. There’s no savior on hand to greet the boy in the city. Some bourgeois trimmings might abound, but what he encounters is the harsh underbelly of the post-industrial age, as he finds himself quickly passing from doing slave child-labor in brick factories – something which still exists in China today – to delinquency when he’s brought into a gang.
A Corner of Heaven essentially is about the boy’s (and thus the viewer’s) discovery of this terrain as a source of both terrifying and wondrous absurdities. It’s here that Zhang’s artistically trained eye thrives, whether it’s the mirroring of the boy’s idyllic life in his village to the coldness of the city (grazing sheep on a ridge for the former, tenements overlooking a rubbish-ladden ravine in the latter) or his awestruck observations of bizarre rituals of modern life (firework and lighting displays in the middle of nowhere, or pensioners doing line-dancing in the town square).
Guo Xinjiang’s brave and vigorous turn as the steel-willed, adaptable urchin heightens the alienation and apocalyptic depiction of a terrible land blighted by pollution and poverty. This is all about providing an ambience rather than answers – and the devastating denouement might be Zhang’s own riposte to anyone proclaiming a happily-ever-after ending for the self-styled dragon-state on the rise.
Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum)
Production companies: Rice Production, Arizona Productions
Cast: Guo Xinjiang, Huo Xuehui, Bai Haonan
Director: Zhang Miaoyan
Screenwriter: Rice Zhang
Producers: Zhang Miaoyan, Guillaume de Seille
Director of photography: Zhang Miaoyan
Art director: Du Juemin
Editor: Zhang Miaoyan
Music: Angel Firestar Simmons
International Sales: Arizona Films
No rating; 94 minutes
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