Many contemporary films from China showcased at Film Festivals in recent years tend to use the country’s fast-paced urban development as backdrop. This new wave of filmmakers situate their characters and tell their stories amidst dilapidated buildings marked for demolition, sometimes the whole community torn down to make way for new projects. In the name of progress, many are uprooted and displaced.
In Life After Life (2017), we see a village abandoned as its former residents have all moved to the city. In Dead Pigs (2018) we see the feisty owner of the last house in an urban community standing alone, refusing to sell to the developer. The acclaimed auteur Jia Zhangke’s Cannes winning A Touch of Sin (2013) follows desperate individuals wrestled down by the strong arms of economic progress and capitalistic greed. His latest “Ash is Purest White” (2018) may be of a crime genre but we see the protagonist being swept along the tumultuous torrents of technological change and urban development, seeking whatever humanness that remains.
The most haunting has to be the 2018 film by the talented, young director Hu Bo, An Elephant Sitting Still. Hu parallels the desolation of the urban environs with the inner world of his characters: Despondent youths in a school bound for demolition, not that they have bright futures even if the school remains; aimless adults desperately seeking connection but ending in betrayal and loss; a grandfather facing gloomy days ahead as he’s cut off from his son’s family… Hu’s accusation of his society was astute and unsparing.
At one point in the film, The Wasteland is alluded to, certainly not only referring to the physical environs. That it is mentioned as a deadpan jest to make fun only exposes the indifference of the speaker to its meaning. Tragically life imitates art, Hu took his own life during the film’s post-production. He was 29.
Eliot wrote The Wasteland in the aftermath of WWI, lamenting the desolation and that dry, cracked piece of soil deep in the human soul, derelict and barren in the midst of post-war development and the loss of spirituality.
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
Cut to Easter. I’ve been pondering these seemingly unrelated ripples from films during this Easter weekend, at a place thousands of miles from home. Then came this Easter thought. When that stone was rolled away at the grave, the Son of God reversed the trajectory of the human race. With that ultimate miracle of the resurrection, He’d blown life into the dry stone that is the human heart, turned wasteland into fertile soil, opening up the way to save us from ourselves.
Herein lies hope.