At the end of October I visited China for the first time and I wanted to write a post about it. So I guess this is that post. I was there to participate in the first - year zero - edition of the Pingyao international film festival. I’ve already written reports for Sight and Sound and Film Bulletin and Il Manifesto, about the festival itself. And I wrote a piece on the politics surrounding China in the time I was there for Tim Marshall’s The What and the Why website. But I wanted to do something more personal. All of the observations that I found interesting but don’t quite fit in with those particular forums.
I flew Venice to Paris, Paris to Beijing. They had run out of Chinese money in Venice and I didn’t have time to look in Paris and when I got to Beijing the only cash machine I could find was broken and the fog cancelled everything beyond the windows that wasn’t airport. On the plane from Europe, I’d watched Lady Macbeth, The Big Sick and Lego Batman. The last one had depressed me thoroughly. Like any good joke gone bad. The last flight was to Tinyuan. It was an hour long hop over soil brown mountains and a blanket of fog to the South. A car picked me up at the airport with a white gloved chauffeur and another film critic from Tel Aviv, who I knew by sight only. We had a great conversation, drunk with jetlag and bonded over the lively subject of the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. It was to be a leitmotif. Airports and motorways are how most countries are introduced to us and I watched the way our driver drove - his hazard lights on flashing for the whole 90 minute drive - how old fashioned the trucks looked and the various buildings I could see in the distance. Stupidly astounded by the fact that so many people live in a country that I’d never visited, I felt that weird existential readjustment that you have to make when you realize you’re a tiny part of a much bigger world and if you were to die tomorrow everything would go on exactly as it had before, shy one website.
Pingyao itself was a noisy new town with billboards and traffic - ‘looks like Chinatown,’ my driving companion remarked drily. The old city was inside ancient walls and we drove through narrow alleyways, under the impression that despite or perhaps because of his white gloves, our driver was lost. The hotel had the romantic title the Green Cloudtop Hotel. I reviewed it on TripAdvisor. In fact, I was reviewing it on TripAdvisor from the moment we got there. Just as I looked at the world through Instagram eyes and think in tweets and meditate in status updates.
Meeting up with Richard, we went for food at a local bistro. Lots of hot peppers and local noodles. The streets were narrow and the traffic was confined to motorbikes, scooters, mini tractors, bicycles and pedestrians. I napped for two hours then we visited the film festival complex which looked like the kind of reclaimed industrial estate that typifies many cultural art centers in Britain - the Albert Docks in Liverpool, dockland generally in London. Outside the air had the tang of coal smoke and gunpowder. Fireworks would go off intermittently all the time we were there. A staple of any celebration.
In the evening we went out for a large meal and it would follow most of our meals in form. Usually Richard would order everything and we would taste. There was a large hot pot placed in the center and we drank beer, wine and the international spirit that whether it’s called vodka or grappa or perlinka or whatever tastes of exhaust fumes and brain damage.
In the morning, I dutifully saw a film and then missed my hotel walking back. I was so befuddled by jet lag that I couldn’t bring myself to turn around. The streets are very easy to understand - named after directions - West Street, South Street etc. - so I knew I was on the right street but I couldn’t be bothered and I walked to the city wall before I bumped against it and turned around. I had lunch with Sarah, a journalist from upcoming.com, pointing to a photograph to order what looked like noodles but turned out to be a large bowl of tripe. I manfully tried but there’s only so much gristle you can do.
Other the next few days, films and interviews with filmmakers took up some time, but in the afternoons and evenings jaunts were organised. We went to an interactive theatrical experience about the history of Pingyao. It was in Chinese and the audio description was so bothersome I preferred selective confusion. I was suitably impressed by the scene in the bathhouse and the wall that came alive with people. It was like It’s a Small World (after all) in Disneyland and enjoyed it until Marta reminded me that it was all propaganda. My political instincts tend to dissolve when I’m given some bright lights and sharp dance moves, but It’s a Small World After All is propaganda too, although of a much more insidious and annoying kind. Marta’s from Poland so her antenna is attuned. More food and a group photo and then lumbering home, dodging the scooters and talking to Andrew from New York who will get sick and stay in his room for two days. Everyone will think he simply left without saying goodbye and be embarrassed when he turns up, apparently still with us.
We also travel by bus to a Buddhist temple, a fortress, a family compound where they shot Raise the Red Lantern. Our group soon take on the contours of a part of 14 year olds on a school trip. Marta’s observation and one she underlines every now and then by intoning ‘14 year olds!’ whenever we indulge in a bit of cheeky nonsense, irreverent commentary or childish japing. Carlos - who looks like the lead singer of a post punk rock band (specifically a young Mark E. Smith) - from Brazil does the same by raising his eyebrow at very precise moments. He is disconcerted by the fact that breakfast is basically just the same food we have for lunch or dinner. I love that. I gleefully eat peppers and noodles, chicken and rice every morning.
In the morning, vegetable sellers drive little tractors loaded with produce and shout some kind of customary ‘Come and get ‘em!’ as they drive by. People hock and spit. We have a theory that the hock noise is a warning. Everyone from our group is a bit disgusted, but I revel in these differences and to prove my ‘When in Rome...’ credentials, gravel up a lurgy but then chicken out and have to spit somewhere off the path in a way that doesn’t fail to repulse and amuse everyone present.
This is in Fenyang, the hometown of Jia Zhangke, the famed Chinese director and the founder of the film festival. Here he has opened a restaurant and is in the process of creating an arts center with workshops and spaces for film education. The center is in a kind of fun park with a whole bunch of disparate and quite random elements. Mao mixes with the Minions. There’s a rocket ship and a basketball ring, huge industrial buildings and an obstacle course. We eat at his Mountains May Depart restaurant and snigger at the weird sign above the urinal in the public toilets. ‘14 year olds!’ indeed.
(To be Continued)
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.