To coincide with the publication of World Film Locations: Beijing from Intellect Books, co-editor John Berra reviews six Beijing-set films to illustrate how China’s ever-changing capital city has inspired commercial and independent filmmakers alike, from the 1990s to today.
Although he made his directorial debut with Red Sorghum (1987) one decade earlier, Keep Cool was only the second film by Fifth Generation figurehead Zhang Yimou to be set in present day China, following the peasant saga The Story of Qiu Ju (1992). It was also his first urban commentary, representing the start of a short, and arguably not particularly satisfying, period of Zhang’s career when he tried to tackle China’s shifting social-economic landscape. Keep Cool was followed by Not One Less (1999) and Happy Times (2000), relatively pared-down productions when compared to the director’s earlier rural visions or later wuxia (martial hero) epics, although made within the strict guidelines of China’s film bureau (SARFT). Of this loose ‘modern trilogy’, Keep Cool remains the most interesting entry as it finds Zhang engaging directly with a Beijing that has been extensively redeveloped while he has been on location in the provinces, not to mention the questionable attitudes of young city dwellers that are far removed from the daily struggles of his usual protagonists. Working from the novel Evening Papers News by Shu Ping, the director aimed to reinvent his style with a dark comedy full of hand-held camerawork and jump-cuts, leading some critics to suggest that Zhang was trying to compete with Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, who had become a festival sensation with Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995). If such stylistic choices do not entirely suit the more classical Zhang, Keep Cool still makes for an occasionally invigorating one-off.
The director’s impression of late-1990s Beijing, and the priorities of its young inhabitants, is made clear from the hectic opening sequence: bookseller Zhao (Jiang Wen) is following his ex-lover An (Qu Ying) through the streets of the city following a break-up, catching up with her at Tiananmen Gate when he chases An on to a bus. Zhao briefly interrogates An, before she disembarks and tries to give him the slip by walking through an underpass, then rides a bicycle to her new apartment complex. Their appearances show that both are representative of Beijing’s new urban economy: Zhao is a punk, with torn denim clothing and a spiky buzz-cut, whereas An is more upwardly mobile with her chic yellow dress, designer sunglasses, and sleek gel-assisted hairstyle. Unable to figure out which of the identikit buildings is An’s residence, Zhao hangs around. His persistence temporarily wins over the flighty An, who invites Zhao up to her apartment for a quick fling, only to lose interest again when they are interrupted by noise from outside. Matters become more complicated when Zhang learns that An is now seeing nightclub owner Liu (Guanhua Liang), who orders his thugs to give Zhang a beating for pestering his arm candy. During this attack, bystander Lao (Li Baotian) has his laptop damaged and insists that Zhang pay compensation so that he can replace it. An argument escalates between Zhao and Lao, but they are forced to team-up in order to get the compensation money from the wealthier Liu.
Set during a typically hot Beijing summer, Keep Cool could best be described as a very busy film with temperatures flaring as Zhao and Lao’s efforts to cover the cost of a new laptop turn into a revenge mission, culminating in violent outburst at a restaurant where Liu has agreed to a meeting. These disputes are accompanied by loud music or background noise, as characters struggle to make their positions heard over the constant reverb of the city. It’s an aesthetic explosion where material status symbols (cars, consumer electronics, DKNY T-shirts) clash with the seemingly bygone Chinese value system that Lao, who is older than Zhao, is clinging on to. This is evidently the work of a director who is late on the urban scene and infuriated with what he has found after swapping his rural canvas for the big city: Zhang’s camera is perpetually in motion as if to emphasise the futility of devoting so much energy to such petty pursuits, only settling down when Lao is detained at a police station for a week to consider his actions, before emerging as a calmer citizen. His parting lecture from a firm yet sympathetic policemen (Ge You) provides the moral coda: ‘Whatever you encounter later, you have to resort to the law. Don’t use knives and guns at random. Keep cool and be bold.’ Keep Cool may not be an overlooked classic in Zhang’s filmography, but it is an energetic curiosity, worth seeing in the context of China’s urban cinema.