The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: September 3 - 10, 1998

[Film Culture]

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Bon Jovi Beijing?

Irene Lusztig lays her hand on China

For Beijing with Love Squalor The MFA launches a promising series of "Boston Film Artists" at 6 p.m. this Wednesday with Irene Lusztig's provocative video vision of today's urban China, To Beijing with Love and Squalor. (The connection with Salinger appears to go no further than the title.) There, she insists, disco/consumer Communism reigns, and the youth are only into dancing and shopping.

Lusztig, who now resides in New York, shot this documentary while a filmmaking undergraduate at Harvard. She traveled to Beijing to hang out with two longhaired, would-be rock musicians. They seem fairly promising the only time we watch their band practice, with Little Richard vocals and a raw punkish sound. But mostly they just hang out, chase frisky young women, complain about their square, obedient parents, pose in their real Levi jeans, and say the Chinese word for "fuck" a lot. The legacy of Tiananmen Square means nothing to these slackers. Their culture heroes are foreign rockers like Wham, Michael Jackson, and especially Bon Jovi for "Lay Your Hand on Me."

"Just because you had heard a single song by Bon Jovi, you felt you could look down on others," one of them explains. They have no interest in China's first rock star of the '80s (I missed his name), whose banned songs were chanted by politically motivated students. They do admire China's current heavy-metal favorites, Tongue Dynasty, whose escapist lyrics and randy act make them popular even in Hong Kong.

Our guys are amusing in a depressing way, and the filmmaker clearly enjoys their company, even if they're lazy, womanizing dreamers. Fortunately, Lusztig goes beyond her protagonists to show the up-to-date milieu in which they move. She brings her camera into the newly voguish NASA club, where hip young Chinese dance happily to the Village People's "YMCA." She films in the headquarters of Scorpion Records, the first alternative-music company in Beijing. Unfortunately, Scorpion has released only one record in a year, with songs by the boss's girlfriend. Mostly, the staff just hang out in their cool office reading back issues of Rolling Stone.

Finally, Lusztig goes with her pals to a city far from Beijing, where the parents of one of these musicians live. She films a revelatory dinner conversation that shows the schism between Chinese generations. The young men express their annoyance at the conservatism around them, at the fact that practically every male has short hair. They wish to travel to America. "You young people are all anarchists!" grumbles the Archie Bunkerish Communist dad.

The MFA series continues at 1:30 p.m. on September 12 with part one of talented Newton documentarian David Sutherland's The Farmer's Wife. In October there will be showings of new films by locals Mary Kocol, Martha Swetzoff, and Joshua Seftel.

Our very own Next Stop, Wonderland is the latest example of a film that's been "Miramaxed": bought by the New York distributor, which then goes hands-on (some say goes heavy-handed on) with a final mix and edit. There's no saying "no" to Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, who insists on the final say for the release version of any film he purchases. Lately, he helped put Smoke Signals into its present, very successful, form. Both Smoke Signals' director, Chris Eyre, and the writer, Sherman Alexie, have expressed gratitude. There's even a rumor that Weinstein was involved in the release cut of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue.

I've seen Next Stop, Wonderland in several versions, before and after Miramax, and I can say, with some reservations, that the Miramax release is the better cut. Director/editor Brad Anderson, who was asked to go back into his film, deleted about 20 minutes of slack (unneeded talk, some of the silly stuff about killing a fish), recut some scenes, and restored from the cutting floor a couple of episodes (best: Hope Davis imagining her ex-boyfriend in a mirror). He kept practically all of Davis, who is always a joy to watch. In total: a movie that's shorter and snappier, and definitely more fun.

But then there's that newly shot ending, which exemplifies Miramax's box-office-motivated obsession with feel-good conclusions. There was a need of something: the film's original final moments were inconclusive in an aesthetically unsatisfying way. Now there's closure, but it seems obvious that Weinstein insisted on closure up the kazoo. The last scenes, which would have worked fine if brief and subtle, drag on, especially the dopy episode on an airplane.

Still, who am I to complain? Miramax paid $6 million to Newton's Robbins Entertainment for the film at Sundance -- which everyone, including me, believed was an exorbitant purchase price. Many involved in the production are acquaintances and friends of mine, including Brad and the co-screenwriter, Lyn Vaus. But their film didn't seem the stuff of which hits are made. Yet now that it's been "Miramaxed," Next Stop, Wonderland is a nicely commercial movie, pleasing both to arthouse types and regular folks with a romantic streak. As I write, it's playing at the Nickelodeon, the Kendall Square, and the Chestnut Hill.

According to Variety, only three American independent films of the many released this summer (Next Stop, Wonderland is too new to count) made money: The Opposite of Sex, Smoke Signals, and, the surprise, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss.

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