Outsiders in Chinese Films Elegy of the Outcast

Actress Su Xiaotong in „What's in the Darkness
© Kong Desheng

Contrary to last year's “Gone with the Bullets” (一步之遥) which celebrates the collective and the pompous, we see several Chinese films this year which delve deep into the world of the outcast and the banal.

In this year’s Berlinale Shorts section, Anchorage Prohibited (禁止下锚) and White Bird (白鸟) both place marginalised characters in a central position and seem like soulmates or long lost brothers to each other. The feeling of loneliness and displacement in these two films are expressed in What’s in the Darkness (黑处有什么) by means of an exceptional spot-on dark humour. I find this brilliant because I personally think that humour is the only way to deal with the malaise of our time. Crude and somewhat repulsive extreme close-ups render all the veins, bruises and textures of a pig leg painfully visible, coming from Qu Jing's (曲靜) father's geeky perspective as a forensic investigator. The scene evolves into a comical moment when the father in his stony-faced expression and in all seriousness interrogates the market butcher about the pig's cause of death. The backdrop of all of this, a small town in Henan Province in the 1990s seems traditional and conservative at first glance, but at the same time sexualized gazes of men are everywhere. The father, who is the only university-trained policeman, is a laughing stock underneath the polite and friendly façade, for he obsessively takes crime photos and indulges in philosophising about crime and punishment. This obvious incompatibility with his surroundings is meticulously observed by the teenager daughter Qu Jing, who is also an outcast at school – neither beautiful or studious enough to be liked, nor mischievous enough to be disliked – and befriends another outcast, a girl who seems to have prematurely entered the adult world of vanity and sexual power struggle.

The elegy of non-belonging continues in Anchorage Prohibited by Chiang Wei Liang (曾威量) and White Bird by Wu Linfeng (吴林峰). In the former, two rootless migrant workers wander around the seaside, mountainous paths, corner shops, long-distance buses, and shanties, with rumbles of metal doors rolling up and down serving as a metaphor for an island where “anchorage is prohibited”, just like the film's title suggests. In White Bird an HIV-positive man and his expatriate cousin, both lonely outsiders of the society, encounter each other while the whole city steams up with sweat and humidity.

What's in the darkness? A lonely soul, an intolerant community, or a world with misplaced crime and punishment?