A Way Out (China, 2017) [CVF/BFI Southbank Chinese New Year 2019]

A Way Out, a documentary directed Zheng Qiong and officially released in 2016 in China, has gained traction due to its newfound buzz in Chinese media and theater showings will continue across China in 2019. BFI Southbank presents the film’s UK premiere on January 23 in conjunction with the Chinese Visual Festival as part of its Chinese New Year celebration.

Zheng filmed over the course of six years, following three young people across the socio-economic and urban-rural divide, acting as observer rather than a narrator. The question of one family’s cooperation and assent to their role in the film, and Zheng’s transparency with them, is raised at the end but with no explanation other than the accusation of an elder family member who professes loyalty to the Chinese Community Party.

Two of the young people profiled illustrate the steep odds faced by provincial Chinese, challenging the assumption of a rising tide of middle class Chinese that pervades economic and political commentary in the West. Gansu Province, an arid and mountainous region in the far northwest, is home to Ma Baijuan, a curious and charming girl of twelve who attends a primary school with a handful of students and earnest teachers.

In Xianning, a small city on the Yangtze River, Xu Jia, nineteen-years-old and graduated from high school, is crushed by the rigors of the examination system required for entry to university. While the examination system in China is a symbol of continuity with its ancient past, its role in contemporary China reflects similar challenges worldwide as to the function and usefulness of standardized tests, whether they serve students and society or the education-industrial establishment.

In contrast, seventeen year old Yuan Hanhan lives a more privileged existence, financially and by virtue of being a resident of Beijing, living in a not particularly fashionable district but still starkly more comfortable than her peers. While Zheng’s characterization of her as a “dropout” suggests any combination of delinquency, inintelligence, or mere fecklessness, her alienation is typical of artistically-inclined young people in a social and educational structure that denigrates aesthetic values, and her talents as a painter belie her mother’s nagging as well as her own modesty.

The most provocative question of the film is the many distances of these young people from the promise of the Chinese Dream. As a pre-adolescent Ma recites robotically from her textbooks which hold such promises. She learns by rote. While no narrative voice helps the audience navigate the cultural assumptions of Chinese education, one can reasonably infer that all the students learned in a similarly standardized manner.

While the concept of following young people over the course of six year may sound reminiscent of Michael Apted’s Up series (1964-present), Zheng’s portraits include the wider milieu of Chinese life, including the influence of family values, cultural and everyday practices. Including a younger child as a subject, and not simply young adults, appeals to parental instincts as I hopped that young Ma’s big and spontaneous smile as a twelve year old will not fade as she grows into her teenage years and inevitable disappointment that her proscribed future will not be as planned. One moment is particularly ironic. Ma’s teacher reads from a generic social studies textbook about local development while the camera pans to a bleak and empty landscape.

As the years past, one sees the universal and the angst common to growing up the world wide. The sociological angle shifts to dislocation in a globalized world, Hanhan’s opportunity to study in Germany is hampered by her own homesickness and lack of life skills. For Jia who hopes to make his father proud with entry into university, the sadness of his purpose is what comes after, when he works for a company whose propaganda is as sinister as it is banal. In the end, their particular fates are all complicated by many economic, psychological and sociological factors.

A Way Out bravely questions what China knows, or cares to admit, about itself, nor what the West assumes about China. There’s also humor and levity from the often naive subjects. Hanhan’s description Germany as in “no rush to develop further,” that Germans “only need to do their routine jobs like little stones arranged in a line by the country,” is both observant and contains a measure of projection. Zheng could have made a more optimistic film by focusing in on members of China’s upper middle class, such as the Beijing elite and Hong Kong elite whose children begin learning English as toddlers. What she has crafted is a more realistic and unobstructed view of China’s majority non-elites, crafting a picture of modern China that leaves deep questions about its assumed forward trajectory.

A Way Out is showing as part of Chinese New Year 2019 – CVF at BFI Southbank on January 23.