The Back -- Film Review

Poignancy is missing in a melancholy, confused tale of Mao and antique dealers.

ROME — The banal commercialization of Mao memorabilia dating from China’s Cultural Revolution is what most people will remember about The Back,a visually attractive but conceptually rather gruesome offering from Liu Bingjian ("Cry Woman," "Plastic Flowers"). It’s likely to be yet another of the director’s films, like the gay-themed "Men and Women," to be banned in his native China but available to Western festival audiences. Though the basic premise -– that a young man is hunted for the value of a Mao portrait tattooed on his back –- is patently absurd, the film could attract festival interest on the basis of its curious portrait of modern China as rich, artistically savvy and morally corrupt.

A man of few words and much hidden suffering, Hong Tao (played by dreamy Chinese male model and TV star Hu Bing) runs a private art museum that doubles as an upscale restaurant. Flashbacks to 1970s China are the film’s finest moments, shot in brilliant reds. In a few swift strokes, they sketch his father as a violent, raving mad, cult Communist Party artist. In a fury of love for Chairman Mao, he immobilizes first his wife and then his young son on the bed where he painfully punctures them with needles. The wife slits her wrists; the son vanishes.

Thirty years on, China has changed. Quaint serial paintings from the Cultural Revolution hang in stylish museums, while ceramic busts of Mao and his Little Red Book are sold off tourist racks.  Hong Tao is now a brooding young man whose ambiguous sexuality the camera loves to fetishize. Though hotly desired by a playfully sexy girl in a pink wig (Jia Yuanyuan), he repulses her attempts at seduction, apparently due to the great physical pain he is in. The only thing that can soothe him is “medicine” applied to his back by a doting male assistant (Xu Ning). Teasingly, he never takes off his T-shirt, leaving one to wonder what all the fuss is about.

Thanks to the visit of a childhood friend who talks only about business, markets and money, he learns that the portrait Dad tattooed on his mother’s back has fetched millions of euros at auction and her skin, stretched in a frame like a piece of canvas, is now hanging in the loft of a rich collector. Hong Tao fears he’s next on the block. Running for his life, he hides out with his assistant in the mountains of Tibet, painted by cinematographer Zheng Jiansong in an explosion of magnificent visuals.

The finale, which may have worked on paper in Jing Ge’s story, is both confused and unpleasant. Though this is hardly a horror film, there are shudder-producing elements that get so glossed over they are narratively difficult to decipher, including the puzzling ending.

Production designers Pei Liu and Yan Pen second the director’s artistic vision in offering intimate glimpses into a refined aesthete’s world, contrasted to the graphic madness of the Mao period and life under totalitarianism.

Production companies: Apsaras Film, CS Production, Rouge International, HRTV Production Inc., Pro East Entertainment
Cast: Hu Bing, Jia Yuanyuan, Xu Ning, Xu Chengfeng, Cheng Youwang, Hairong Tiantian
Director: Liu Bingjian
Screenwriters: Liu Bingjian, Deng Ye
Based on a story by Jing Ge
Producers: Liu Bingjian, Louise Prince, Nadia Turincev, Julie Gayet, Jacky Yau Chi Chak, Tong Man Hong
Director of photography: Zheng Jiansong
Production designers: Fei Liu, Yan Pen
Music: Zhang Yuning, Nicolas Backer
Costumes: Wang Lin
Editor: Mao Hui
Unrated, 85 minutes