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Beauty and danger: two things which define not just Ciao Ciao‘s titular character, but the film as a whole. Charting the fallout of a young, glamorous woman’s return to her home village in southwestern China, Song Chuan’s second film sets festering rural lives against sweeping depictions of stunning beautiful landscapes — a juxtaposition which, perhaps, speaks volumes about how unmoored people have become from their morality and roots.
Ciao Ciao could be seen as a more thematically streamlined and artistically refined take of Song’s 2011 debut Huan Huan. The pic is an interesting corollary to a recent wave of Chinese-language films exploring the plight of young Chinese migrant workers in big cities, from Wang Bing’s observational Bitter Money to Midi Z’s Bangkok-set drama The Road to Mandalay. Song’s film offers a similar cultural clash, but in reverse, where prodigal sons and daughters struggle to readapt to small-town life after their exposure to cosmopolitan urbanity. The festival circuit should greet Ciao Ciao warmly after its appearances in Berlin and Hong Kong.
Song’s film begins with a wide shot of a valley, through which a honking train rumbles; next, a car is seen from afar, swerving through narrow, muddy roads and bypassing tractors, bicycles and herds of sheep. All this marks the homecoming of Ciao Ciao (Liang Xueqin), returning to her Yunnan province village from the prosperous city of Guangzhou.
The film doesn’t really spell out her line of work or how long she’s been away, but it’s certainly long enough to have completely alienated her physically and psychologically from her birthplace. Ciao Ciao’s porcelain-white skin stands in stark contrast to the earthy colors of the village, her attire — flowing frocks, hot pants, high heels — completely at odds with her surroundings. At one point, a villager refers to returnees as having picked up “bad habits” from the city, but credit to Song (who hails from Yunnan) for not succumbing to a simple urban-rural moral binary.
And then there’s the smirk she wears like a badge of honor, as she frowns (to herself, and in telephone calls to a friend back in Guangzhou) about the “hillbillies” around her. Inevitably, two of these hicks soon take a shine to her. The wayward scion of a bootlegger, Li Wei (Zhang Yu) is a brute (as demonstrated by his rough sex with a prostitute) who, like Ciao Ciao, once worked in the coastal province of Zhejiang. And then there’s a hairdresser (Zhou Quan), whose gentler demeanor stirs Ciao Ciao as much as his promise of a move back to Guangzhou to open a beauty salon there.
Ciao Ciao’s father (Wang Laowu) is a slacker who sits at home with his self-made aphrodisiacs. His wife (Zhou Lin) does the harvesting, manages a grocery store and does all the chores — and somehow finds time to have an affair with Li Wei’s father (Hong Chang), who knows well how to use money to solve all sorts of problems, especially his son’s.
Ciao Ciao succeeds in channeling the provincial ennui, which shapes its characters’ every gesture and utterance — alienation brought into even sharper focus by cinematographer Li Xuejun’s incredible widescreen depiction of open but forlorn rustic spaces. Song’s fatalistic vision is best exemplified by the film’s most comical and harrowing scene: The mayor, above the deafening din of a brass band, sends young men off to work in the cities for “the glory of our town.”
Irony is perhaps at play here, given the results of Ciao Ciao and Li Wei’s time in the sun. With that, Song puts his name across as one of the most visually and socially incisive directors in China today.
Production companies: Zorba Production
Cast: Liang Xueqin, Zhang Yu, Hong Chang, Zhou Lin
Director-screenwriter: Song Chuan
Producers: Guillaume de la Boulaye, He Xiaoyun, Thomas He
Director of photography: Li Xuejun
Production designer: Wang Laowu
Costume designer: Zhang Xiaojuan
Editors: Jean-Marie Lengellé
Music: Jean-Christophe Onno
Sales: Wide Management
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