Review: Unknown Pleasures – Ren xiao yao (2002)

Ren xiao yao (2002)

Directed by: Jia Zhang Ke | 107 minutes | drama, romance | Actors: Wei Wei Zhao, Qiong Wu, Qing Feng Zhou, Hong Wei Wang, Ru Bai, Xi An Liu, Shou Lin Xu, Ren Ai Jun, Dao Xiao, Zi Ying, Limin Wang, Tao Zhao

Although by no means comparable to standard Hollywood work, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is for Zhangke’s relatively straightforward, focused narrative with a lot of momentum. There are still long takes in the film, for example with only a character riding his moped on the screen for a long time, but the shot sequence is often logical and practically every scene serves directly to drive the plot forward. The story is also clear and accessible to everyone. It features a central love story, and a clearly identified bad guy who must be fought. The fact that the tone is not always rosy, and an interesting social context can be observed, is to be expected in view of Zhangke’s personal preferences, and ensures that the film has not become a simple genre work.

The line of Zhangke’s film ‘Platform’, in which performing arts increasingly became part of pop culture – where they were previously mainly used as propaganda – is continued in this film. Dancer Qiao Qiao (Tao Zhao) performs in the film purely from a commercial point of view. She dances to promote the products of “Wines and Liqueurs from Mongolia”. Xiao Ji (Qiong Wu) meets her in this capacity and immediately falls in love with her. Despite his sometimes tough attitude, he is quite shy, and so his buddy Bin Bin (Wei Wei Zhao) puts a good word for him with the already experienced – and damaged – Qiao Qiao. He gets her to have him bring Xiao Ji into her trailer. She asks the boy what he wants to do with her, to which he is unable to say a word. When she says she had an abortion and asks if he still wants her now, he replies in the affirmative, adding, cool and cute, “I’ll make you melt like fresh noodles.” She is amused by this and gives him an unexpected kiss, which puts Xiao Ji in a trance in love for good. On the way back, on the back of Bin Bin’s moped, he still dreams of this while holding his size around his waist.

It is these kind of sensitive moments that give the film an attractive charm. Love is also important in Bin Bin’s life. His somewhat quiet, insecure girlfriend is about to take an exam and proposes not to see each other for a while. But normally they sit on the couch watching television together. Adorable is the scene in which they take each other’s hands and spontaneously start singing along with the song on TV, naturally, without any obvious dramatic transition or emotions on the faces.
In this case, too, all of this plays out against a real, historical and turbulent social background. Houses are being demolished, roads are being built, bombings are taking place, and members of the quasi-religious Falungong movement can be seen on television set on fire – a movement of which Bin Bin’s mother is a member.

Meanwhile, the youngsters are trapped in a world of aimlessness, not knowing what they can or want to do with their future. The feeling of being trapped in a situation seems to be explicitly symbolized in some scenes. In one such scene, Qiao Qiao tries again and again to leave her trailer without her dance outfit – and thus to stop working – but is pushed into her chair over and over again by her “friend” who blocks the doorway. It is a fascinating scene with Qiao Qiao rising from her chair again and again, and an expressionless friend who stops her in the same way. It is as if you are watching a continuous repetition. The cinematic equivalent of a record that gets stuck. Later, something similar happens with Xiao Ji,
In this vague situation, the characters are also left to the end, unsure of their future or a good prospect. Fortunately, some humor has been added to the film. When the two friends try to rob a bank, they make a fake bomb that is not very convincing. In any case, neither guy knows how to get it right. When Xiao Wu wears the thing around his neck and asks Bin Bin if it looks real, he replies, “The bomb is, you don’t.” And when Bin Bin has started a trade in illegal video CDs, Zhangke makes a funny reference to his previous work when a friend asks if he doesn’t have art films like ‘Xiao Wu’ or ‘Platform’. Unfortunately not. Then he takes ‘Pulp Fiction’.

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