THE CHINA SYNDROME : Ying Liang’s ‘The Other Half’ [8/10]

For many critics and viewers, YING Liang's Tiger Competition entrant Taking Father Home was one of the stories of the 2006 Rotterdam Film Festival. For an absolutely minimal budget, using borrowed equipment and non-professional actors, Ying and his collaborator PENG Shan came up with a film that delivered a major emotional wallop while simultaneously speaking volumes about ordinary lives in modern urban China. Here was a young film-maker with an sure, seemingly instinctive grasp of how to use the cinematic medium to tell a story: his gift for composition and movement within the frame, his co-ordination of visual and aural elements, marked him as a singular talent. And, encouragingly, he showed no sign of resting on his laurels: the posters for Taking Father Home included an announcement that we should look out for the follow-up, entitled The Other Half.*

The Other Half has now duly arrived, and in the opening titles announces itself as "Ying Liang's second feature film." Not exactly a modest note to strike, and perhaps a potential hostage to fortune. Luckily for all concerned, however, the picture confirms Ying's status as one of the world's most exciting young directors – and is thus, if anything, even more heartening than Taking Father Home (countless are the splashy debuts which have led to rapidly-fizzling careers.) Though it's arguably not quite up to the very high level of its predecessor in terms of story-momentum, focus or emotional impact, The Other Half sees Ying commendably stretching himself in terms of the scope and depth of his subject-matter. If you only see one Ying Liang film, it should still probably be Taking Father Home – but the consistently impressive accomplishment shown in The Other Half nevertheless places it far above the general run of current cinema (it's certainly a cut or two above Jia Zhang-Ke's overrated Still Life, with which it has certain thematic and geographical similarities.)

Whereas Taking Father Home was the story of a young man in search of his parent, the focus of The Other Half, as the title seemingly suggests, is on the opposite sex. The first shot introduces us to Xiaofei (ZENG Xiaofei), a woman in her early twenties, living in the city of Zigong, Sichuan province. She's being interviewed for a position in a legal firm – and the long line of women waiting their turn behind indicate that it's a much sought after job. Xiaofei duly lands the post, which involves silently transcribing conversations between lawyers and their clients. A dozen or so of these conversations punctuate the entire length of the film: the camera always in the same position, framing the speaker as they sit at a blue-clothed table, the outside world visible through a window behind.

Most of the cases are marital in nature: women seeking divorce, or redress against violent husbands. Some of them involve the issue which seems to be the single most prevalent matter in modern-day China: environmental concerns, and the pollution of the environment due to the presence of major chemical factories. As Xiaofei goes to and from work, we see that Zigong is a huge metropolis choked by car-fumes and smog – an increasing worry for Xiaofei, who suffers from asthma (then again, "everyone has suffering issues.") This isn't her only concern: she's in an up-and-down relationship with slacker Gang (DENG Gang), a good-for-nothing sort who spends most of his time drinking and/or gambling (these two vices, the film suggests, now pandemic in and corrosive of the nation as a whole).

Xiaofei's mother – who wastes no opportunity to inform her daughter that the latter resembles "movie star ZHANG Ziyi" – doesn't approve ("he does nothing but dawdles all days"), and prods Xiaofei towards marriage with an older, more respectable businessman. Given the nature of what she sees and hears at work every day, Xiaofei is understandably reluctant to follow her mother's advice – but neither is she entirely content with Gang (surely the "other half" of the film's title?), whose idea of romantic conversation is to propose "Let's eat hot pot together." Events take a more dramatic turn when Gang abruptly vanishes from the scene – and is thus instantly suspected of being connected with a spate of brutal killings in the area…

As with Taking Father Home, Ying manages to show us the life of his city while also paying full, intimate, attention to the human participants and their everyday lives (the rough demotic of their speech engagingly captured, as in Ying's first film, via the decidedly rough-edged English translations to be found in the subtitling.) Tannoy loudspeakers keep us up to speed with major news stories in a casual manner reminiscent of peak-period Altman, pointing us in the direction of the larger themes Ying is tackling: the role of women in employment ("they're creating a colourful future"), economic development, and the ever-present fears of environmental disaster. Just as Taking Father Home built inexorably towards an enormous (real-life) flood, shown in documentary footage, The Other Half also features the evacuation of Zigong – this time caused by a major benzene leak ("explosion is coming") – depicted via genuine TV news reports [in fact, the latter features actual images of the evacuation of nearby Chonqing.]

In terms of execution, Ying doesn't much change the recipe that worked so well last time. Again, he is fond of staging scenes in which action is happening in the background and middle distance as well as the foreground – a tricky task even for experienced film-makers, but carried off with seeming effortlessness here, aided by the even deep focus provided by standard digital cameras. Though he dispenses with a tripod, Ying never actually moves his camera once his shot has begun – relying on those elements of composition and movement-within-the-frame previously mentioned, not to mention the fundamental issue of where the camera should be placed. Again, Ying consistently comes up trumps – it's very rare that you even suspect that the camera isn't in the ideal position, that the angle chosen isn't the optimum one for the requirements of each particular scene. But his achievement isn't purely technical: he elicits entirely believable, natural improvised-feeling performances from a cast which is, again, reportedly entirely non-pro (the actors all share their characters' names). Xiaofei doesn't have that many lines, but is equally effective whether speaking or silent; while the twelve clients each make the absolute most out of their necessarily-limited screen time.

Original in its structure and audacious in the breadth of its concerns, The Other Half doesn't deliver the kind of jolting payoff which made Taking Father Home so viscerally powerful. Typically, Ying climaxes the film with a protracted, impeccably-restrained, beautifully-framed shot of a wide bridge somewhere in the near-deserted city, with Xiaofei walking away from the camera and coping with the solicitous attentions of a friendly cop. The tough, unsentimental resolution of this scene is deciedly ambiguous, and reliant on the viewer's subjective interpretation – though Ying provides a teasing 'clue' in the form of a brief coda in which a key earlier scene is replayed backwards, in monochrome slow-motion.

It all adds up to a compelling, resonant snapshot of China in the middle of the 21st century's first decade. Not a pretty picture: this land is, as we see and hear, "poor, jobless and polluted." But Ying's achievement is to convey this message in a manner that's lively, provocative and vibrant – when it would have been so easy to deliver two hours of depressing gloom. Taken together, Taking Father Home and The Other Half are, despite the pessimistic aspects of their narrative, themselves a cause for great optimism, even celebration: world cinema needs such accessible, ambitious, accomplished voices, and in Ying Liang it now seems safe to say we've certainly got one.

Neil Young
28th January, 2007

THE OTHER HALF : [8/10] : Ling yi ban : China 2006 : YING Liang : 111 mins (IFFR timing)
seen at on DVD at home in Sunderland (UK), 25th/26th January 2007 – with thanks to YING Liang [The Other Half is concurrently showing at the Rotterdam Film Festival]

Full disclosure: I'm thanked in the end credits of The Other Half (having interviewed Ying Liang after Rotterdam, I gave him some pointers as to the film-festival career for his two films) but I had no input of any kind into the film itself.

* Next up: either Blown by the Typhoon or The Missing House – the ever-industrious Ying has not one but two features in preparation.