Despite its title, viewers may still be surprised at how light-hearted Jia Zhangke’s recent short The Hedonists actually is, especially when compared to the director’s more somber films. While this 26 minute short essentially deals with subject matter that has preoccupied Jia throughout his career, namely, how socio-economic changes in China have impacted on the lives of the marginalized and underprivileged, The Hedonists establishes a more openly whimsical (and sometimes absurdist) tone.
The film’s Mandarin title 营生 can be literally translated as “maintaining a living.” And that’s precisely what the three main characters in The Hedonists are trying to do: they’re trying to maintain a living, however paltry or insignificant that may be. At the beginning of the film, the three friends (a cook, a mine worker, and a night guard) are each fired from their jobs. Together, they embark on a job-seeking journey that first has the three middle-aged men applying unsuccessfully for a position as a rich man’s bodyguard. When that fails to pan out, they apply for jobs as performers at a village in Shanxi. Han Sanming, the cook who was previously fired for smoking while handling food, gets himself fired yet again for bringing up issues of historical inconsistency regarding their costuming. The film ends with his friends joining him silently as they leave the village together. Night soon falls and lanterns are lit up in the town, but Sanming and his friends are not part of the merriment.
For a film with such a bleak storyline, the protagonists are rarely portrayed as downtrodden, even as they face multiple setbacks in keeping their jobs. The tenor of the film remains upbeat, thanks mostly to its sound design. A mood of slight irreverence is set at the very beginning of the film, when we see an aerial shot of a train coming in and a sudden shriek of the train whistle matches the piano music playing in the background in pitch, thus uncannily mixing the diegetic world with the non-diegetic. Jia has mentioned in an interview that the words “营生” have always signified more than just “livelihood” for him. For the director, the term also connotes a necessary burden in life, a burden that one can embrace in the spirit of comedy.
Comedy indeed abounds in The Hedonists, whether it’s in visual gags, self-referential in-jokes (Jia, for instance, plays the role of the provincial upstart in need of a bodyguard), or simple absurdity, such as the scene that has two of the protagonists wrestling each other against the music of Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube. Admirers of Jia Zhangke who appreciate the more surrealist and imaginative tendencies of his works won’t be disappointed by The Hedonists, a delightful addition to his oeuvre that retains his concerns with the lives of the proletariat while also managing to be playfully inventive.