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Beijing operas
The films of Ning Ying at the HFA

Chinese director Ning Ying knows Beijing the way Martin Scorsese knows New York. Attuned to its nuances, rhythms, chaos, and smells, she re-creates her great city with ardor and detachment, using neo-realistic techniques to dramatize profound themes and perennial conflicts (the latter not resolved by icepicks and handguns, as is the case with her American counterpart). Overshadowed by such Chinese Fifth Generation filmmakers as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige and by hot newcomer Jia Zhang-ke (whose films hers resemble in their irony and shrewd eye for cultural and social detail, their savvy about the clash between old and new), she demonstrates in her brilliant "Beijing Trilogy" — which is screening as part of the Harvard Film Archive’s "From China with Love: The Films of Ning Ying" — that she is one of her country’s major talents.

Although the style seems spontaneous cinéma-vérité, Ning has structured the trilogy with an anthropologist’s rigorous logic. Each film focuses on a particular generation and a social or cultural institution. Each film suggests that regardless of your age or generation, society has no answers to the fundamental problems of loneliness and alienation. And neither do individuals. The former offers only bureaucracy and oppression; the latter provide hedonism and despair.

The older generation and the "arts" are the focus of For Fun (1993; November 21 at 9 p.m. and November 23 at 7 p.m.; Ning will be present on the 21st), which opens with "Mackie Messer" from Der Dreigroschenoper playing over a tracking shot along a bustling Beijing street scene. Cut to a performance at the Beijing Opera, a Brechtian artifice in its own right, where Old Han, the company’s utility man, is as usual making a pest of himself.

This performance is his swan song, however. Forced to retire, Han must move on to another stage in his life. A workaholic and bossy by nature, he must learn how to do things "for fun." After bumping into some other codgers singing opera in the park, he proposes they form a club. At first his officiousness is an asset in working through the red tape of the various cultural offices and getting their elderly opera society started. But then, as with all great ideas (including socialism itself), personalities and bureaucracy take over. Delightful and heart-rending, For Fun recalls Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D.

On the Beat (1995; November 22 at 7 p.m. and November 23 at 9 p.m.) takes aim at baby-boomers (or the Chinese equivalent) and the police force. In one telling scene, officers in a squad room watch an episode of the old American cop show Hunter on TV and lament that they aren’t issued guns. Not that they need them: their biggest case involves chasing down a rabid dog (the image of a small army of policemen armed with clubs searching a derelict palace for a diseased animal seems emblematic). To stem a potential rabies outbreak, they’re ordered to impound all the dogs in the neighborhood. Veteran cop Yang Guoli (played by a real officer with the same name), who’s already having problems with his wife because of his late hours, is fed up with this degrading assignment, and when an uppity dog owner he’s interrogating calls him a "dirty dog," he blows up. Funny stuff, but also a disturbing insight into anomie and totalitarianism.

The young and the restless figure in I Love Beijing (2001; November 22 at 9 p.m. and November 23 at 9 p.m.), which opens in a divorce court. Beijing cabbie Dezi is the object of his spouse’s scorn: you’re a loser, she tells him, you’re never home, and your so-called clients — rich drunks, floozies, and petty gangsters — exploit you. How do you think I paid for the clothes you’re wearing, he retorts. Indeed, he puts in as much time on the meter as Travis Bickle, but unlike Scorsese’s taxi driver, he has no trouble scoring women, which is what his wife was really angry about in the first place.

No big deal, there’s always another — the girls just love his set of wheels (though a new regulation from his taxi cooperative says it’s too old and he needs to replace it). A few shots after his wife splits, Dezi is shacking up with a beautiful waitress. But she’s a handful too, so he picks up a bespectacled librarian and then a country bumpkin and then a talk-radio hostess. Long before he’s puking in the road while the drunken teenybopper fare in a blue dress dances in his headlights to the car radio, it’s clear Dezi is really just a hopeless romantic looking for true love. He’ll never be satisfied, and he’ll always be, as his wife pointed out, a loser exploited by his clients. But he’ll still love Beijing, and so will you after seeing this stunning triptych of the city.

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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