Blue Sky Bones (Lanse Gutou): Rome Review

The Cultural Revolution never looked so messy.

Cui Jian, one of China’s first rock stars, makes his feature debut with a story about history, family, music and politics.

A story about Chinese history told by a computer hacker ought to be more fun than Blue Sky Bones (formerly known as The Blue Bone), a confused tale about music and roots that never gets beyond the basic chords. The first feature to be directed by Cui Jian, one of the China’s early rock stars and an influential musical force during the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests, it should rouse some interest on home turf where the director is an icon. But it misses the big-scale romanticism it seems to be aiming for by a mile, and isn’t even that effective at dissing the Cultural Revolution.

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The hero of the tale is Zhong Hua (played as a very cool and self-assured nerd by Yin Fang), a geekish underground rocker who makes a living creating computer viruses and then selling anti-viruses to neutralize them. When an impresario asks him to launch the career of his air-head girlfriend Meng Meng (Huang Huan), Zhong Hua reluctantly agrees to do a live web show, illegally hooking into a satellite dish for the needed bandwidth.

It’s a criminal infraction of the law that echoes the crime his mother Shi Yanping (TV actress and model Ni Hongjie) committed in the Seventies, leading to her exile in the country during the Cultural Revolution. She was just a pretty Sichuan girl in braids when she was selected to partner the son of a high-ranking Beijing Party general. The boy in question, Sun Hong, is however more interested in his handsome comrade Chen Dong. He expresses his anguish in a modern shower dance, while the musically talented Yanping sings a song she wrote called Lost Season. This gets all three of the young protags in big trouble, as it is judged reactionary. The fact that Yanping (her son calls her China's first hippie) has been listening to imperialist English music on the sly doesn’t help her case.

Other, overlapping flashbacks tell the story of Zhong Hua’s father (Zhao Youliang), who dragged him away from Mom when he was small. During the scuffle, the father is wounded in a way suggesting castration. None of this material goes very far in giving deep meaning to the story, however, and the disorderly editing that shifts back and forth in time can’t mask an underlying silliness.

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One bright note comes from the expressive images, courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Doyle who is famed for his work on Wong Kar-Wai films. The scenes of river rafting set in Wuxi county are exquisite and breathtakingly real, in marked contrast to his pop stylization of 1970’s Beijing.

The song Lost Season, sung in various ways and rearranged as Blue Sky Bones later in the film, is a clear reference to the "lost ten years" of the Cultural Revolution. Written by Cui Jian (who, it should be noted, opened for the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple in their Beijing concerts), it makes poignant contact with the writer-director's own troubles with the authorities, who have often banned his music in China.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (out of competition), Nov. 12, 2013
Production companies: Beijing Antaeus Group
Cast: Zhao Youliang, Ni Hongjie, Yin Fang, Huang Xuan, Huang Huan, Guo Jinglin, Lei Han
Director: Cui Jian
Screenwriter: Cui Jian
Director of photography: Christopher Doyle

Production designer: Liu Qing
Editor: Zhou Xinxia
Music: Cui Jian
Sales Agent: China - Cinema
No rating, 101 minutes.