Unknown Pleasures

Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 04/04/03 18:38:00

"Offers little cultural insight for a glut of meandering repetitiveness"
3 stars (Just Average)

UNKOWN PLEASURES, a film by Chinese director Jia Zhang-Ke (XIAO WU a.k.a. PICKPOCKET), is an exploration of disenfranchised youth in a politically volatile period of China’s recent history. Sadly, none of that volatility is carried over to the film itself, and the characters are so bare-bones that they end up looking like ghosts who wander aimlessly against a decaying urban backdrop.

Unknown Pleasures focuses on two teenage friends, the aimless slacker Xiao Ji (Qiong Wu), and the nihilistic Bin Bin (Wei Wei Zhao). They live in the slums of Datong, each an only child born from the “birth control generation” (The Chinese government’s edict restricting more than one birth per household as a means of population control). They have no jobs, no idea how to get out of the lives they find themselves trapped in, and seemingly no future. Major world events occur around them (Beijing wins the bid for the 2008 summer Olympics, an unemployed factory worker blows up the factory in protest, and an American plane violates Chinese airspace resulting in a midair collision and national outcry). Yet like most of the world’s disenfranchised youth, they seem to take little notice. Xiao Ji feels that “30 is long enough” to live, and when Bin Bin’s estranged girlfriend tells him, “you can call me in the future”, he replies “There is no fucking future.”

Each of the boys shares a tenuous connection with their girlfriends. Bin Bin’s girlfriend Yuan Yuan (Qing Feng Zhou) is upwardly mobile. She takes her schooling and exams seriously, has her eye on becoming a player in international business, and is annoyed with Bin Bin for his flippant and dismissive attitude towards it all. Meanwhile, Xiao Ji becomes involved with the beautiful Qiao Qiao (Tao Zhao), a dancing girl who works on the promotional circuit for “King Mongolian Liquors”. Qiao Qiao shares many of the same disaffections as the two boys, yet distracts herself from them by being a dancer and performer – even if it is only at promotions to give out free samples of hooch. Her relationship with Xiao Ji is impeded at first by both his shyness and her involvement with the possessive older thug Qiao San, who runs the King Mongolian promotions.

Unknown Pleasures is a film that’s hard to turn away from, but also damn hard to sit through. To say it moves at a slower pace would be a class-one misdemeanor lie. The film moves at a sluggish, decrepit, and at times grueling pace. Prepare yourself for plenty of scenes of the characters riding around on their moped for several punishing minutes, or standing around smoking and generally not speaking to or even looking at each other. I really wanted to get to know these characters better, really wanted to like them and gain more insight into them than I did. However, they speak little, emote even less, and seem so completely apathetic about their existence that they give the viewer little reason to respond any differently. The strangest directorial choice of all is the use of a few scenes that are highly repetitive and quickly grating. When Xiao Ji and Qiao Qiao are caught dancing together in a nightclub by Qiao San and his henchmen, they drag him out back and for well over a minute the following sequence occurs: Henchman slaps Xiao Ji’s face, asks “Are you having a good time yet?” Xiao Ji responds “Yes”. Repeat, ad infinitum. In another scene, Xiao Ji’s moped constantly stalls as he tries to ride it up a small dirt hill. Rather than find another path, or just push the bike up the hill, he doggedly persists in trying to ride it up for what feels like several minutes, until he finally clears the berm. Only one of these repetitive scenes carries any emotional resonance. When Qiao Qiao tries to leave the tour bus to see Xiao Ji, she is repeatedly pushed back into her seat by Qiao San. She tries to get up to leave again, and he pushes her back at least a dozen times. When she is finally allowed to leave, her face streaked with tears, she tosses aside the wig she has worn the entire time, as if finally allowing us to see the real her.

There are emotionally poignant moments in Unknown Pleasures, and even several moments of subdued humor. It’s obvious that Zhang-Ke wants us to feel the oppressive sense of empty dreams, unfulfilled ambitions, and general hopelessness that these kids feel. However, there is a difference between inspiring a sense of alienation in one’s audience, and merely alienating them from your work through mundane repetitiveness and emotional disconnectedness. Like that moped that keeps stalling on the hill, the film often shows moments of promise or impetus, but usually ends up sputtering to a halt and going nowhere.

UNKOWN PLEASURES is not for the impatient, but even the most forgiving viewer will have to work hard to cull a sense of affiliation with these characters. While the film did leave me with a curious desire to check out some of Zhang-Ke’s earlier works, what few pleasures gleaned from this one could have remained uknown to me, and I would not have felt any poorer because of it.

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