The Land of Peach Blossoms (China, 2018) [CVF 2019]

Addressing issues similar to those found in Tracy Dong’s In Character (2018) is Zhou Mingying’s The Land of Peach Blossoms. On the surface, the two films present markedly different industries and locations: filmmaking/acting in the former and a theme restaurant in the latter. On closer inspection, they are inextricably linked through the precise nature of the working relationship between project leader (film director in one, restaurant founder in the other) and participants and the theory-praxis by which they go about to achieve a desired result, be it a well-prepared cast in In Character or an unforgettable dining experience in The Land of Peach Blossoms. Perhaps most surprisingly, performance is a vital component in both films. Ultimately, the kind of social realities that these two films capture hinge on the kind of useful as well as dissenting revelations that the process of rehearsal can make possible.

Admittedly, In Character edges out The Land of Peach Blossoms on a technical and structural level. Yes, the audio quality leaves a lot to be desired. In many scenes, blaring music from somewhere offscreen competes with whoever the camera is focusing on, making for distracted moments. Yes, the film is about twenty minutes longer than it needs to be, which diffuses viewer interest and thematic development. Footage of employee interviews, rehearsals, and meetings vary little from sequence to sequence for quite a time and become wearisome. But the very existence of Zhou’s film makes for interesting viewing, while its subject is even more intriguing.

In a restaurant named Feast of Flowers located atop a multi-story building in Chongqing, China, female staff are called “Floral fairies” and male staff are “Flower gentlemen.” Under the strict and careful tutelage of founder Zhang Derong, who established Feast of Flowers in 1992, the staff are involved in “emotional catering”. It’s a concept that brings together food and live performance and situates the guests as a part of as well as spectators of it. In Feast of Flowers, live performances consist of acting out historical events/situations in costume or graceful dances that create pretty formations and pictures with which to present dishes. According to Zhang himself, he pioneered the cultivation of edible flower dishes; going into the twenty-first century, the longevity of his success cemented his place in the culinary industry and history.

Zhang’s reputation has attracted waves of followers, who make up his staff. Zhou features employees new and seasoned speaking of the restaurant as if it were a veritable paradise, unassailable and incorruptible; and of their boss as a charitable god among mortals with endless blessings to bestow. Such blessings come in the form of training and rehearsals of dances, with Zhang leading the choreography and conceptualisation of serving-performing. Staff are also allowed to come up with their own concepts for performances apart from either cooking the dishes themselves or serving as the waitstaff. Hence, some of the male staff have the title of “action art waiters.” Zhou himself, at the time of filming beginning in February 2014, was the restaurant’s photographer and therefore had insider access to both the themed restaurant’s goings-on and employees’ confidences.

Slowly but surely, cracks in the paradise start to show, with mentions of brainwashing amongst employees. Increasingly, the male staff disclose their desire to leave because they are fed up with Zhang’s rants, but hesitate to quit due to the promises of money and franchises in the future even while they are paid only meagre, half-wages – if they are paid at all. (One wonders about the overwhelming focus on the male staff in terms of sharing employees’ experiences. Or was there simply no transformation of attitude among the female staff?) Such cracks, though, appear early on in the film: the first staff meeting unfolds more like a struggle session than anything else. It is, in fact, one of the first of many staff meetings presided by Zhang and his elite assistants where the topic of the day is always following/favouring the collective, constant learning, and self-effacement. One meeting is composed of nothing but apologies and promises to do better from the staff and Zhang calling one of the men a moron, while in another Zhang mentions matter-of-factly how he follows President Xi Jinping’s creeds that aim to improve national quality. Each subsequent meeting is consequently emptied of meaning, with worker exploitation and comparisons to a cult looming large.

Zhou incorporating a voiceover to express his perspective of and dialogue with what he captures would have added a whole other dimension to his film, and also streamlined its narrative structure. To his credit, that the film never leaves the premises heightens the claustrophobic atmosphere while intensifying the staff’s predicament and overall increasing absurdity of it all. What initially appears as an unmotivated recurring shot of freeway traffic from atop the restaurant and through foliage unfortunately becomes indicative of feelings of isolation and constraint. With its alternating sequences of live performances, rehearsals, and employee conversations, Zhou’s film even slightly recalls Jia Zhangke’s The World (2004), while its epilogue is sadly like a bitter punchline of a joke that has gone on for far too long.

The Land of Peach Blossoms is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 5.