By Yun-hua Chen.
With such a team, it is thus no surprise that Ripples of Life is able to tellingly allude to Chinese arthouse cinema’s current trend of exploring rural portraits, examine unequal relationships between those who film and those who are filmed, and question the innate outsider perspective of city-dwellers.”
After his debut feature Striding into the Wind (2020), which was selected into the official program of Cannes 2020, the Chinese director Wei Shujun returns to Cannes with Ripples of Life (Director’s Fortnight) in 2021. It is filmed with the same cinematographer Wang Jiehong as Striding into the Wind, edited by Matthieu Laclau, who has Jia Zhang Ke’s films including A Touch of Sin (2013) and Mountains May Depart (2015), Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay (2016) and Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake (2019) under his belt, and produced by Xufeng Huang, who worked in Pema Tseden’s Balloon (2019) and Han Shuai’s Summer Blur (2020); all of them are film professionals who help construct the current landscape of Chinese independent filmmaking.
With such a team, it is thus no surprise that Ripples of Life is able to tellingly allude to Chinese arthouse cinema’s current trend of exploring rural portraits, examine unequal relationships between those who film and those who are filmed, and question the innate outsider perspective of city-dwellers. In fact, right before the pre-planned shooting day, Wei abandoned the final version of the original script because it didn’t feel right and quickly rewrote the entire script together with the screenwriter into a self-reflexive three-part satire.
In the first part, the arrival of an arthouse film team rekindles the small-town young woman Xiao Gu’s yearning for a different life, who works at her in-laws’ restaurant and is burdened with mundane responsibilities as a mother, a wife, and a daughter-in-law; even the decisions of weaning and doing manicure were considered inappropriate by her husband and mother-in-law. She fantasizes about being cast in the film and entering the glamorous film world. In the second part, the arrival of a famous actress Chen Chen snaps Xiao Gu from her daydreaming. Chen Chen grows up in the same small town before moving to big cities for her acting career. Her nostalgia for the simple life in the town very soon turns into disillusionment, as her childhood friends have become either bureaucrats who are eager to exploit her fame for city marketing or family men who are trapped in feelings of discontent in alternation with feelings of envy. In the third part, the irreconcilable dispute right before the shooting between the director and the screenwriter, played by the real screenwriter, is adapted from what actually happened extradiegetically. Filmed in two-shots and long take, the conversation between the duo swings between intellectual and sarcastic.
This novel, casual and theatre-like structure, has an organic flow. As Ripples of Life is about the filming process of a film also titled “Ripples of Life”, it swirls into a mise-en-abyme. Both well-designed and naturally performed, this satire holds a mirror to itself, self-ridicules and rips off the fig leaf of hypocrisy in the film industry and the rapidly transforming society in general. The actress who wants to have a low-key catch-up with her childhood friends ends up being carried away by a four-person sedan chair accompanied by a celebratory dragon and lion dance upon disembarkation. Film investors are courted, actors flattered, but Xiao Gu is exploited as a model of costumes and a life to be “experienced” and copied into the film. The pretense of a supposedly scholarly film critic, invited by the director to discuss the script on a boat trip, is unmasked as he blurts out swear words when being contradicted by the screenwriter.
The question that all the characters in Ripples of Life ask themselves seems to be, should I stay, or should I go? Small town residents desire the possibility of a better life in a big city, but they are rooted in their monotonous everyday life for survival. City-dwellers, jaded after years of striving and competing, crave for an easier life in a small town, but it’s difficult to be water for one who has seen the great seas. The screenwriter wants to leave the director who demands infinite redrafting but is too attached to his labor of love of years. As Xiao Gu contrasts Chen Chen, and the screenwriter contrasts the director, feelings of resentment, regret and envy for those who stay behind echo the feelings of exhaustion and frustration for those who leave to search for life elsewhere. Poignantly performed by Miyi Huang and Zishan Yang, Xiao Gu and Chen Chen as a parallel portray a housewife who wants to be an actress, and an actress who wants to live an ordinary life, as well as the absurdity of Chen Chen’s task to reappropriate Xiao Gu’s “life experience” for the sake of authenticity in the film.
When the film team in the film within the film scouts for shooting locations, they find a frameless window in an abandoned ruin. The director said, isn’t it like a 4:3 film screen? Looking towards the new development zone on the opposite side, isn’t it like watching someone else’s story in a film? This is a scene which neatly sums up the satirical nature of Ripples of Life and its cinephilia.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.