A film of images, but not of ideas: Here, Then

22 June 2013

'Here, Then' won the Best International Film award at last year's Edinburgh International Film Festival and is released on DVD on Monday, 24 June.

Chinese director Mao Mao’s Here, Then (Ci chu yu bi chu) was the surprise winner of the Best International Film award at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. With this year’s event in full flow, Second Run are releasing the work on DVD for the first time, lending their unflinchingly reliable seal of approval to a film that is likely to enchant and intrigue many of those seeking absorbing imagery and sonic textures.

It’s an interesting move for the distribution label, whose catalogue boasts some of the most reputable but neglected titles in 20th Century East European and 21st Century East Asian cinemas, for Mao Mao’s debut feature evinces what to my eyes is something of a retreat from any concrete analysis of – let alone comment on – the actual problems currently facing him and his contemporaries. (For one contrasting example of a similarly oblique narrative that couldn’t be any more serious in its engagement with ongoing history, see my review of When Night Falls, which received its UK premiere at Edinburgh this week.)

With its partly coastal setting and its cast of rootless, listless youths, Here, Then recalls to some extent the Argentine film Leones, which I saw at IndieLisboa in April and which screens at East End Film Festival next month. Both films demonstrate a formal control and experimentation that too many take to be aesthetically audacious. In the case of Here, Then, they seem also to forget that any “character study” (to quote one article quoted on the DVD sleeve) is historically and socially anchored. Indeed, psychological nuance and dramatic plausibility have social foundations.

It’s fine that youth in both rural and urban China are defined today to a large extent by unhappiness, are in pursuit of an undefined Elsewhere, but Mao Mao takes his dramatic stakes for granted. Of course, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the problems currently facing artists in China, which are not unlike those facing equivalents in Iran (see my review of From Tehran to London, also showing at Edinburgh this year). But we may note that art is not just a response to the objective conditions in which it is made; it is also conditioned by those conditions, in complex and often unseen ways. Here, Then is part of a long tradition of films that court formal flash at the expense of genuinely profound insight.

Here, then, we have a succession of images that may very well linger regardless of their woolly implications, many of which are fixed-camera shallow-focus shots in which performers move in and out of visual clarity. My favourite shot is a patient, backward track from a windowpane to reveal four green bottles sitting on a sill, next to a pink handbag. Eventually, two people are revealed to be sitting across from one another at a table in a diner, only for the camera to move back in at the same pace to its original position, as if having become thoroughly fed up by their attempt at a conversation.

Possibly aspiring to allegory, Mao Mao films a man and woman in wide shot on a beach in what – once we ditch the gallery-plaque rhetoric – is by any other description a rape. Why anyone would want to frame such a scene so idyllically is anyone’s guess. The image that inspired Mao Mao to make the film, though, was apparently that of a young lass, who began to sway to the music playing in the director’s car while she waited for a rendezvous. The episode is re-enacted here in a quietly beautiful shot that culminates in the girl returning our gaze with a direct address to camera.

In a revealing interview included on this disc, Mao Mao states that he put “the political aspects in the background, without focus”, and that he wanted to “represent the emotions and relationships between people and the spaces they inhabit” rather than to foreground the political context in which they unfold. Many have found and will find the resulting ambiguities provocative, but I find such artistic approaches to be facile precisely because material history plays an active role in human emotions and because social spaces are never not overwhelmingly political, inhabited or otherwise.