In Character (China, 2018) [CVF 2019]

In 2012, filmmaker Tracy Dong accompanied writer-director Ye Jing during auditions, casting, and rehearsals for a film project that concerns his teenage years in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. That project would result in Ye’s debut feature, Songs of the Youth 1969 (2016). The portions that bookend Dong’s film certainly conform to standard making-of documentary material, including footage of Ye speaking of his film and motivating his actors to better understand the personal feelings that underwrite it. But Dong’s film does not follow through with the usual trajectory of a making-of once casting and rehearsals are over. The film, in fact, concludes with a ceremony to mark the beginning of the shooting of Ye’s film. Instead, Dong focuses on the actors’ collective process of getting into character under specific circumstances and conditions of living, as dictated by Ye. In doing so, Dong unwittingly unveils some unpalatable observations with regards to the performance of (collectivist/statist) ideology and rehearsal as a way of understanding the historical past.

The early portions of the film devoted to auditions and casting belies such issues. Yet the informal tone of conversations between filmmakers and would-be cast, and such informality clashing with the serious point of how much the actors are willing to give up everything in their lives for the film, hint at the rigorous training to come. Casting accomplished, the process of getting the actors into character then begins: donning the iconic olive-green uniforms of the Red Guard; watching footage of Chairman Mao with Ye, who speaks of the Cultural Revolution as a “rock ‘n’ roll movement” due to the passion with which people lived at the time; and singing, marching, and reading excerpts from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1964). The awkwardness that some of the actors feel during this first phase of rehearsals further hints at what is to come, while also somewhat elaborating Dong’s claim of her film being less about the Cultural Revolution and more about the “rethinking of collectivism and reflect[ing upon] the living conditions of [modern] Chinese actors.” Comical reactions to what they are doing/saying at this early stage express all too clearly how these actors, all of whom fairly young, are removed from such a culture of collective obeisance — let alone memories of such — that generations before them had experienced/witnessed daily.

But Ye advises: the more they know the movements, the more they will understand his film. Ye’s statement marks a pivotal moment in guiding the film’s underlying focus towards the actors’ collective psychic transformations in the name of getting into character. Quickly after the rehearsals and Ye’s statement are scenes of two actors dancing and stretching their bodies, while playing in the background is an excerpted speech of “Chairman Mao Thought” and the need to eradicate anyone who is against it. The improvised, individualised nature of the actors’ movements contrasts strikingly with not only the audio but also the collective precision required of the previously seen rehearsals. This marked disconnect between behaviour and ideology subtly raises the physical-performative aspect of imbibing/propagating ideology, be it the internalisation and outward expression of it or its elaboration.

Putting his statement into practice, Ye has his cast live in an abandoned munitions factory for a week, which makes up the bulk of Dong’s film. Isolated from the outside world spatially and technologically, with the actors always in uniform, past and present commingle. Random inserts of images of Mao or nearby locals looking from a distance at the cast when they rehearse outdoors enhance this past-present liminality.

Like a social experiment, the film witnesses the actors in the factory going over the script and having meetings that quickly become Cultural Revolution-era struggle sessions. Intense characterisation on the part of the actors, or the force of the past tearing its way into the present through their bodies? The so-called “Jiang Siyuan Incident,” involving actor Jiang committing the “mistake” of asking Ye if he could leave for several days due to a family emergency, presents the most exhausting-extensive struggle sessions, and thus the most heightened, surrealistic merging of past-present. The sessions’ gravitas escalates with the crew coordinator and executive director as representatives of the film organisation against which Jiang’s request is interpreted as an attack, and Jiang being forced to wear a dunce cap and sign. Contradicting Dong’s statement above and subverting Ye’s “rock ‘n’ roll movement” comment, the film captures the immense emotional toll of shaming/humiliation prevalent during the Cultural Revolution. The casting director’s aside at the beginning of Jiang’s struggle sessions makes bold this point: such small “mistakes” lead to actual deaths during the Cultural Revolution.

Dong’s editing of Ye arriving at the factory after a week – and finding his cast transformed – between sequences of the factory rehearsal-retreat instead of at film’s conclusion is a missed opportunity in light of what she witnesses with her camera. In one long take, Ye’s cast whisk him through the factory and perform what would presumably be scenes from his soon-to-be film. “This is a process,” he tells them, ironically devoid of any irony, and pleased with how they have handled getting into character.

In Character is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 8.