Film Review: Fujian Blue

Film Review: Fujian Blue

The feature film debut of Robin Weng Shou-ming (翁首鸣), Fujian Blue follows a group of disaffected, purposeless souls who spend their time blackmailing middle-aged women and clubbing away their twenties. Such a premise somehow transforms into an absorbing narrative of deeply felt characters, a trenchant social commentary, and a tone poem to a nearly-lost generation.

In the early 1980s, Fujian became a vital hinge on the open door policy that fostered China’s economic miracle, which brought suburbs, video games, and minivans to the province. At the same time, it lured many Chinese to seek their fortune abroad and has made Fujian a center for human trafficking, particularly the “golden triangle” of Fuqing, Changle, and Pintang. Into this picture step the Neon Knights, the gang of Roppongi, Amerika, and Dragon, who capitalize on the void left by emigre husbands by catching their “remittance widows” with local lovers (sometimes one of their own), and blackmail them. Call it a Chinese version of trickle-down economics. That some knights bear nicknames reflecting their fathers’ destinations adds poignancy to this sad state of affairs.

“Neon Knights” is also the title for the movie’s first half, which focuses on Amerika and his mother, a woman involved in the local church and local trafficking operation. Bonds are already strained between mother and son – the college grad won’t get a job, hangs around bad influences. The plot picks up when he finds out she’s also taken a local lover. Amerika convinces his reluctant friends to videotape and blackmail her mom. It works, but his expressionless face at seeing his mother make the cash drop is telling. There is no victory in this game and no joy in their decadent lives.

Mom is angry and asks “the Czech”, the local underworld leader and smuggler in Fuqing, to smoke out the extortionists. This development puts a little fright on the little gang and sends them to chill out in Pingtan. Here, for the first time, the young folks seem to enjoy themselves and their youth, riding ATVs on the beach, taking a ferry ride to visit their friend, and having sex with the local girls. One of Fujian Blue’s achievements is its street-level perspective and non-judgmental tone, which allows us to become involved with its characters, and draw us into experiencing their world as they live it, including its moments of elation and wonder.

A couple of such moments come near the end of their merry vacation from petty crime when Amerika and a friend are visiting Dragon, who is hiding out back home for reasons of his own. On the very old and small ferry, one of them acts out the scene from Titanic where Jack Dawson (a stowaway, incidentally) is flying without wings. Later on that ferry trip, he notices a mass of Taiwanese boats, and wonders why on earth they would be here, off the coast of China. To refuel for their fishing trips, comes the ferryman’s reply. Can ships that small cross the Straits? Even smaller than this one, says the ferryman. You can picture the gears turning in Amerika’s head.

Dragon is the subject of the second half, “At Home, At Sea”. It is set in motion when the gang decides to give him the windfall from Amerika’s mom. We realize why when he returns home to his poor fishing village and family in debt for his older brother’s emigration. Dragon uses part of the illicit cash to help pay off those debts as well as support his mom and sister. The rest of it – let’s just say its fate involves an even younger group of rogues in a scene both hilarious and sad.

In an especially plangent scene, his younger sister declares during a break from school she doesn’t want to head back, but instead wants to go abroad. No, Dragon says, go back to school. They have a fight. Pretty basic stuff, but the following silence is heart-rending. How can he explain how cruel adult life can be? They compromise: she skips school that day, her brother taking her to walk along the breakwater. If the neon wilderness of Fuqing is disappointing, there are no hopes to disappoint in his homely backwater village. The price of his family’s survival may be its ultimate fracture.

Eventually, Dragon decides to go abroad and seek his fortune in the West, perpetuating the cycle of debt and desperation, but also hope and persistence in the face of two-faced globalization that welcomes the movement of goods and ideas but is cruel to the movement of human beings, all of which it fuels. This persistence may seem absurd when sometimes emigres leave to pay a “snakehead” for having previously smuggled their relative, or even a prior unsuccessful trip they’d taken themselves. A reference to the human-trafficking tragedy at Morecambe imbues real-life gravity to their plight. But this persistence of dreams is also the persistence of memory, of the fact that Fujianese are everywhere, making up a majority of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and the United States. It also reflects the persistence of a buccaneering spirit, reckless but not always self-destructive, which fuels both the crimes and the dreams that feed on each other. Like generations of Fujianese before them, they don’t accept their truncated roles – not in the new China of great expectations.

Several qualities make Fujian Blue a unique standout effort. Weng’s employ of non-professionals punctuates the palpable realism in every scene, whether its the young men teasing the sole woman among them in a gently sexual way, or giving a running commentary on the date in their blackmail video. His use of ribald humor also anchors the characters’ authenticity – the Czech tells his card-playing friends that Czech detention wasn’t so bad because they let you watch porn. I also have to give props to the subtitles team, as I’ve never seen Chinese or any other foreign language translated as “beayotches” and “bros before hoes” (sic).

Speaking of the colloquial, yet another unique and daring feature is the liberal use of the Hokkien dialect (Fujian), which is as different from Mandarin as English is from French. Such use is both accurate (reflecting how people really speak) and illuminating (of China’s true polyglot history and sense of regional identity). Indeed, it’s mentioned that two of the gang hail from Hunan and Sichuan (which also signals that in much of China, Fujian is a placed to be envied). Finally, it is also politically and even psychologically daring to suggest that young men in Fujian (the winners of globalization, both in the world and in China) look wistfully at Taiwan. Perhaps it’s not that Fujian itself is envied, but it’s the closest to what is enviable in the world.

Along with some other features, the attitude towards the characters and their lives reminded me a bit of a breakthrough Scottish film called Trainspotting. Like that movie, we have young men and one woman, lives of petty crime and decadence, and sometimes exuberance that the audience is invited to share. Even the usage of dialect lends a superficial resemblance. More likely, much of it is coincidental, or rather convergent – they share distinguishing traits of a great narrative, lightness in the face of gravity, specificity in the face of stereotype, and multiplicity in the face of dogma.

The problems they face are ultimately different, too: whereas the struggles of Scottish addicts are self-induced, that of these Fujianese rogues result largely from their legitimate though MTV-fueled dreams and the contrasting reality of their horizons. The Chinese title Jīn Bì Huī Huáng is an idiom literally meaning magnificent looking in green and gold. It is used to describe a building, or to use an English idiom word, a facade. After watching the movie at the Mill Valley Film Festival, I learned that Robin Weng is just 26. I have every hope that he will continue to seek out facades and with his remarkable vision, penetrate them.

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