Today and Tomorrow (Jin Tian Ming Tian): Tokyo Review

A cliché-laden tale offering too few insights about urban malaise among young migrant workers in Beijing.

Chinese director Yang Huilong's feature debut follows three twenty-somethings navigating their lives in bustling Beijing.

It's perhaps apt that two of the major onscreen emotional breakdowns in Today and Tomorrow involve characters bawling their eyes out while singing well-known musical numbers about dislocation and disappointment. Yang Huilong's directorial debut about the three disfranchised youngsters in Beijing is abundant in second-hand emotions and lacking in original ideas in both aesthetics and narrative -- and most devastatingly, it's missing a genuine understanding of and empathy toward the have-nots cast to the wayside as China lurches towards its glaring capitalist future.

Today and Tomorrow betrays a wide range of influences from yesteryears: the handheld camera work depicting angst-ridden, lustful young people living in gloomy rooms harkens back to the work of Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers like Lou Ye and Wang Xiaoshuai, while the TV melodrama gets a look-in with plot points about characters choosing between profit and principle (think Teng Huatao's hit series Wo Ju) and caricatured characters (the prostitute with a heart of gold; excessively effeminate fashion designers). The film has been given some festival pedigree after its bow in Tokyo International Film Festival's Asian Future section, but its middling mix of mainstream and alternative approaches might put off viewers of both cinematic camps.

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Set in the soon-to-be-demolished migrant-workers ghetto of Tangjialing in Beijing's northwestern outskirts, the film revolves around three disillusioned provincial-born twenty-somethings whose miserable material existence in the Chinese capital makes them part of the "ant tribe." No need to fret for those who don't know the backdrop and the term: Yang has made sure viewers will understand everything by playing out official announcements about the demolition plans -- not just once, but three times throughout the film -- and also an oddly-inserted radio program news bulletin snippet about the underemployed and underpaid workers toiling in the city. It's the kind of exposition that betrays a lack of elliptical approach towards the story -- a formalist flaw that mirrors the story that follows.

The story begins with a couple, the jobless Jie (Wang Taodie) and the fashion-design college graduate Ranran (Shu Yao) moving into a cramped room next to their friend Wang Xu (Tang Kaikin) -- the first time the pair have had a space to their own, and a footing that might allow them to make inroads into a stable life in Beijing. Needless to say, it's a greasy social pole they're trying to scale; Ranran is forced to endure the advances of the tailor she is an apprentice to, while Wang's dreams of becoming a CEO are constantly upended by either his conscience (when he refuses to partake in crooked practices as an insurance salesman) or his intellect (when he saves himself from a pyramid scheme unfolding in a disintegrating back-alley room). And Jie does, well, mostly nothing -- with his main vocation being lamenting about having done nothing.

And so this triumvirate of jaded young minds march on, their enthusiasm dimmed and hopes trampled with Jie's seemingly ill-advised attempts to sell his girlfriend's portfolio to established designers, while Wang's affection for a streetwalker (Yin Shanshan) only end in stones being thrown and flats being emptied out. So far, so realistic -- until the characters' anguish is somehow resolved, all thanks to humility and human persistence.

If this sounds uplifting to the point of being dogmatic, one is to be reminded that Today and Tomorrow begins with the aforementioned public-information announcement ("Let us create a wonderful future!") and ends with an upward-looking shot of the Chinese national flag fluttering in the wind in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. It would be erroneous to daub Yang's film as propaganda, but it's certainly fair to say the film, like state ideology, which praises resilience and suppresses rebellion, reduces a social problem into this simple, hope-springs-eternal discourse.

But what's most disturbing is how the film fails to connect with the downtrodden when it posits itself as a champion of the underdogs. In one of the final scenes of the film, Wang Xu -- who is happily working away in a small glass bottle factory -- is asked by a middle-aged colleague why a university graduate like him would want to become a laborer. Without battling an eye, the young man says he's treating his job as merely a break, a "year off" before he goes in for the kill in the corporate universe again.

Pity his comrades who have no such futures to aspire to; same goes to Ranran's neighbors whom she dreams of as bumbling quirks in a reverie about parading her dress along the corridor of her tenement -- a presaging of the good news she will inevitably receive later, a stroke of luck that wouldn't befall the others. This negligence is consistent with how the low are left nameless (the prostitute is never called by name, even if the character is listed as "Zhang Hui" in the credits) and how the Tangjialing community is merely a backdrop to the three characters' lives, its erasure (along with its down-and-out inhabitants) from history only returned to in a brief onscreen text before the credits roll at the end. Today and Tomorrow certainly reveals an uncertain future -- for Chinese filmmaking and Chinese society in general.

Asian Future, Tokyo International Film Festival
Production Company: Beijing Jiamao Pictures Television Culture
Director: Yang Huilong
Cast: Tang Kailin, Shu Yao, Wang Daotie, Yin Shanshan
Producer: Wang Yaxi
Executive Producer: Ursula Wolte
Screenwriter: Lin Shiwei
Director of Cinematography: Sun Tian
Editor: Hugues Danois
Music: Henri Huang
Sound Director: Liu Yang
In Mandarin
90 minutes