DOG DAYS (San fu tian) B
China (95 mi) 2016 d: Jordan Schiele
Not sure if the title is a direct reference to the scathingly depressive 2001 Austrian film satire by Ulrich Seidl taking place in the oppressively hot days of summer in the outlying suburbs of Vienna, but this American filmmaker from Brooklyn, New York would surely be aware of the connection. His path to Chinese filmmaking began with Chinese classes at NYU in college before studying abroad at Oxford University, moving to Shanghai where he worked on film sets for a year before studying film for three years in Singapore, working as a cinematographer before finally moving to Beijing, where this film is co-produced by two Hong Kong production companies. Borrowing on the same theme of sweltering summer heat, this American in Hong Kong developed his first feature film as part of the Cannes Cinefondation Residence which premiered at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival in the Panorama line up. A gloomy travelogue set in the seedy underside of modern day China, the nearly colorless film exposes typically hard-edged and dark themes, where it has all the makings of a modern day noir, yet it’s a film that defies category. Centered around a towering performance from the lead character who spends the entire film in heels and hot pants, Lulu, Huang Lu from Li Yang’s BLIND MOUNTAIN (2007), in one of the performances of the year, is an exotic dancer at a cheap nightclub in the outskirts of Changsha in southern China, where the girls can be seen fanning themselves in the stifling heat, Dog Days | Film | Trailer OmeU | critic.de YouTube (1:10). Frustrated that her boyfriend doesn’t pick her up after work, she has to walk home instead in the wee hours of the morning, but by the time she gets home the house is locked and there is no sign of her infant son. A bit frantic to find her boyfriend Bai Long (Tian Muchen), the father of the child, and desperate to find her baby, she pursues other nightclubs in hopes of finding him, which leads her to Sunny, Luo Lanshan from Zhang-ke’s 2013 Top Ten List #3 A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding), a young drag queen performer at a transvestite bar known as The Night Cat who may have an existing relationship with Bai Long. Remaining secretive about his whereabouts, as he does about hiding his gender identity, Sunny agrees to lead Lulu to Bai Long and their baby if she promises not to go to the police and agrees to give up Bai Long.
Initially skeptical of Sunny’s promise to help her, Lulu has no other options, so the next day they take the overnight train to Shanghai. More than anything else, this is an atmospheric subterranean journey that exposes a dark underbelly rarely seen in China, thoroughly drenched in sweat and desperation, often shot in a shadowy world by cinematographer Nathanael Carton. What’s interesting is the extent of her internalization, including her fears of being an unmarried woman raising a child alone, seen early on storing breast milk even while working at a strip club, now forced to come to grips with the horrors of China’s one-child policy. One of the more revealing scenes of maternal longing is watching Lulu breastfeeding a sleeping woman’s baby on the train, creating a feeling of puzzling discomfort with the viewer, yet it beautifully expresses just how strongly she’s been violated, as that maternal yearning doesn’t subside, but it feeds into her driving desire to reunite with her child. In Shanghai, Sunny leads her to a dilapidated hotel where they get little help from the front desk clerk, refusing to acknowledge the names of hotel guests, who instead thrives in a Kafkaesque world of nameless bureaucrats just doing their job, but feeding into a sinister mood of malice. Resigned to a fate of obstacles and roadblocks along the way, Lulu checks in anyway, while Sunny vanishes into his own ghostly existence, where the narrative cleverly interweaves three different kinds of love, heterosexual, homosexual, and maternal, though the first two are only briefly touched upon, with Bai Long’s initial meeting with Sunny shown in flashback, where they are never allowed to expand their character limitations, while the last is the only love that’s thoroughly explored with any depth. Sunny meets secretly with Bai Long, though their scenes together are completely unremarkable, almost feeling unnecessary, overwhelmed by the power of Lulu’s character whose overriding interest dominates the film, as she’s not the typical protagonist, where her fate and the film’s outcome remain in doubt until the end. When Bai Long finally does appear, he tells her he’s sold their baby to a wealthy Shanghai doctor. Despite Sunny’s obvious affection for the boyfriend, his initial distrust turns to empathy for Lulu along the way, as she’s been bitterly damaged by the uncaring acts of Bai Long.
Much of the film is shot in transit, reflecting an aspect of Chinese culture that is robustly thriving, as China has a very dynamic transportation system, as people are always on the move, seen on bicycles, motorbikes, scooters, taxi’s, busses, trains, and even on foot making their way through the crowded streets. The film doesn’t shy away from the grim existence of China’s lower classes and the murky standing of those living in the margins, especially Sunny who is initially indignant at the thought of Lulu slumming into his world, finding her offensive, where he didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire of her troubles, but the two develop an uneasy truce, where their performances are especially revealing, emotive, yet subtle, as both are used to repressing what they feel, but this film provides a series of anguishing moments that nearly destroy the veneer of cordiality, as the world Lulu believes in simply collapses around her, where others might be consumed by grief and disappointment, but Lulu perseveres. Initially shot with wider shots, the farther along her journey, the closer the camera comes to her, eventually shooting in near close-up. The brooding tone is given an atmospheric musical score by Patrick Jonsson that only enhances the oppressive climate, sweltering atmosphere, and changing emotional dynamic. Still intent on finding her baby, she tracks the doctor to his home and knocks on the door, where the audience hasn’t a clue what to expect, eventually meeting the doctor’s wife in her upscale home, who was informed in the adoptive process that the mother was dead. Like a horror film, both are confronted by a shifting reality that changes before their eyes, where Lulu, much like the mother in Jia Zhang-ke’s 2015 Top Ten List #2 Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren) , must decide on the spot whether a working class mother’s biological influence or the comfort of her son being raised by a wealthy family with more financial opportunities would be the best option, as if class distinction could lead to a better life. It’s a heartbreaking moment that shows on her face, as it completely alters the single-minded purpose that drove her there in such a fury, leaving her vulnerable and wavering, caught completely off-guard. Given the overall bleakness of the story, Sunny reveals himself to be sympathetic, offering unconditional support for Lulu through the final showdown, allowing the gay community to come out of the shadows, where marginalized single mothers and poor outcasts from the LGBT community are seen in a more compassionate light, spreading some degree of social awareness to groups that are traditionally isolated from the Chinese mainstream and viewed somewhat anonymously. With a tightly oppressive feel throughout, literally twisting characters into emotional knots, it’s an open question whether the murky outcome finally relieves any of that built-up tension.