Four years on from Winter, his stark, self-financed directorial debut about an old man and a boy atop a perennially snow-covered mountain, writer-director Xing Jian moves into more mainstream territory with Winter After Winter, funded by the tech conglomerate Alibaba. In this period drama set in a Japanese-occupied village in northeastern China during the final stages of World War II, the Chinese painter-turned-filmmaker tracks the fortunes of a rural family as they struggle to ensure their survival and the continuation of their bloodline during wartime.
Filmed almost entirely in high-contrast monochrome and carefully constructed long takes, Winter After Winter is a polished, allegorical slab of pastoral fatalism destined for multiple bookings on the festival circuit. Represented by Rediance, the Beijing sales company that helped bring Cai Chengjie’s black-and-white supernatural satire The Widowed Witch (a.k.a.Shaman) and Hu Bo’s soul-shattering An Elephant Sitting Still to international prominence last year, Winter After Winter is gearing up for its Asian bow in Hong Kong. It will appear both in the city’s film festival and at Filmart, after its world premiere in Rotterdam competition.
Unfolding at a time when the Japanese army was desperately clinging to its quasi-colonial territories across East Asia, the story revolves around a household headed by Lao Si (Gao Qiang). This old patriarch of an impoverished family in a village in Manchuria has three sons, all of whom are about to be forcibly taken away to hard labor camps dotting the Japanese-controlled puppet state. As the film begins, the local Japanese commander (Hibino Akira) is waiting in Lao Si’s house for him to give up his sons.
The pic’s opening scene, a single take running nearly 20 minutes, exposes the tragicomical complications holding things up. Trying to make sure his lineage will survive the deadly circumstances at hand, Lao Si forces his impotent eldest son (Dong Lianghai) to divorce his young wife, so his two siblings can try and impregnate her. The morally upright second son, Lao Er (Yuan Liguo), chooses to flee from the house to join the guerillas instead, while the youngest, timid Lao San (Liu Di), tries but fails to do the deed before he and his big brother are carted away by the Japanese.
As the father and sons bicker, brawl and blunder, they are watched by two other equally inept men: a hypocritical, bespectacled elder revered by all as “the Teacher” (Li Yan) and a Japanese-speaking villager (Zhang Ziyong) who serves as the soldiers’ local facilitator. But the woman holding the key to the fuss remains steadfastly silent. Kun (Yan Bingyan, Feng Shui) is neither asked what she thinks about being passed around as a breeding machine nor does she put up a fight. Even after the brothers are gone, she continues attending to household chores.
Kun’s quiet suffering reaches another level when Lao San, the youngest son, escapes from the labor camp and returns home. Trying to secretly nurture him to health in the cellar, she finally sleeps with him and becomes pregnant. Her sacrifice turns deadly when second son Lao Er, on a clandestine visit home, nearly kills her out of jealousy and disgust.
Adding more misery to Kun’s predicaments, the overjoyed patriarch decides to arrange a sham marriage between her and the Teacher’s village-idiot son (Yang Fan) as cover for the pregnancy. In the film’s grand finale, confrontation and chaos again reign with the defeat of the Japanese occupiers just months afterwards.
Departing from the austere storytelling of his debut, Xing pulls out the stops to showcase his visual craftsmanship, his ability to manage a complex narrative, and his willingness to conform to some of the clichés of commercial filmmaking. These include the use of a single spot of red in the film’s final shot, a knowing nod, perhaps, to the much-debated “girl in red” in Schindler’s List. Guo Daming’s camerawork is generally of enormous help in fostering a gloomy ambience throughout, as is Xu Haijiang’s production design.
But it’s Yan’s central performance as the taciturn Kun that drives Winter After Winter. Rising well above the stylized imagery and some of her fellow actors’ melodramatic din, she teases confusion and anguish from the very limited character she is given to work with.
The movie’s major problem, in fact, is how the female lead is reduced to a reticent cipher, a silent victim on which the men channel their fury. (Significantly, the one other woman in the film, the Japanese commander’s bed-ridden wife, also hardly has a line of dialogue; her purpose is to show her husband’s ability to radiate human warmth away from duty.) It’s easy to see Kun as a symbol of the long-suffering motherland on which clueless men tread — “kun” is the word for the element of “earth” in traditional Taoist cosmology — but Winter After Winter could have gone deeper in its contemplation of moral dilemmas had everybody been given a voice.
Production companies: Group Pictures (Shanghai) and Beijing Dong Sheng Film and Television Production in a presentation by Shanghai Alibaba Pictures, HH On-line Culture & Media International (Beijing) and Beijing Namdream Network Technology
Cast: Yan Bingyan, Gao Qiang, Liu Di,, Hibino Alkira, Yuan Liguo
Director-screenwriter: Xing Jian
Producer: Yang Dandan, Luo Fanxi, Zhang Liangliang
Executive producers: Pan Luyuan, Liu Dechuan, Yin Chao
Director of photography: Guo Daming
Production designer: Xu Haijiang
Costume designer: Xu Li
Music: Dong Dongdong
Editing: Wu Shitong
In Mandarin and Japanese