Mao Mao Cool (China, 2019)

Those who are familiar with the filmography of Zhang Yang are probably not surprised by his recent “shift” to documentary filmmaking beginning in 2015 — though he has also made one feature film since then. Following his first two features Spicy Love Soup (1997) and Shower (1999), Zhang made what is arguably his most intriguing film, 2001’s Quitting. Quitting stars the late actor Jia Hongsheng and deals with his drug addiction and rehab, with he, his family members, and even the doctors who had actually helped him, reenacting what they all went through in the past and thus playing (versions of) themselves. The film’s explicit docu-fiction nature has become emblematic of Zhang’s shape-shifting filmography, particularly in the wake of his first documentary film, Paths of the Soul (2015). Since Paths of the Soul, Zhang has been cultivating his own brand of episodic, observational documentary aesthetic, most notably in collaboration with cinematographer Guo Daming. Zhang and Guo have worked together on all of the former’s documentaries so far (and even on his sole feature since 2015, Soul on a String [2016]). Mao Mao Cool is no exception.

However, Zhang’s latest documentary presents an altogether different visual approach compared to his previous documentaries. As if in deference to his main subject, Mao Mao Cool primary school student Qu Hongrui, the film consists entirely of handheld camerawork, with the camera often at the level of Qu and his classmates to better register their perspective and set it against the codes of behaviour of the adult world about which they are learning. In truth, handheld was a necessity. At Mao Mao Cool primary school, located in Dali County, Yunnan Province, students take the atypical yearly exam that consists of accomplishing a series of timed tasks either individually or in teams in different locations in the course of an entire day, à la The Amazing Race or a scavenger hunt, and thus requiring extensive walking and, in the children’s case, running. For the exam, each child has an “observer,” or adult guardian who watches over his/her assigned child, gives advice/help in case a situation arises, and overall provides emotional support and morale. Meanwhile, each task site is presided by an “examiner,” from whom one receives details of the present and next tasks as well as occasional snacks for student and his/her observer. Tasks include buying vegetables, rock climbing, working in teams to create an artwork, expressing one’s dessert preference in English, guessing the instrument that one hears played but cannot see, and setting up one’s tent at a campsite where the exam concludes.

Following Qu and his observer on foot behind or ahead of them during the exam from presumably the beginning to the end, Zhang and company capture the myriad situations that in fact do arise for Qu, situations that frustrate, anger, or delight him. Over the course of the film, one comes to understand why Qu was chosen as the primary focus: he is rather temperamental, impulsive, and stubborn, and unabashed in being so, when things do not go according to plan. On more than one task site, he breaks out crying, prompting his classmates to ask, “Why do you like to cry so much?” In comparison, his classmates appear all the more candid and extremely pragmatic. The task of creating paints with vegetables, deciding on the team’s colour, and then creating an artwork in a team of four is particularly notable in this regard: Qu’s team consists of him and three girls, who end up leading the effort while Qu observes and complains about being dominated. A veritable rite of passage is this exam, as it teaches time management, teamwork, negotiation, patience (and controlling one’s emotions in general), and perseverance, not in the classroom but in the real world.

In this regard, perhaps the film’s most memorable moment is Qu and his observer’s long walk to the campsite as the final stretch of the exam. As the pair walks leisurely (after bursts of running to overtake classmates), they converse about running and animal sounds. While the sequence may sound anything but exciting, it is as if they enter a neorealist film as the sequence and their conversation progress, for its simultaneous spontaneity, honesty, and mundanity.

At bottom, the film is incredibly endearing for putting a spotlight on such an approach to (children’s) education. But even beyond that, which is admittedly banal in itself, more significant is how Zhang and company offer a glimpse into that slippery liminal space that is between different stages of socialisation. The tug-of-war of these different stages is made visible precisely through Qu and several of his classmates, or rather, between Qu and his classmates, triggered by the nature of the exam and its tasks. Case in point: one of his classmates tells him point-blank that she does not like him and hates that she has had to ride with him to the next task. “Tug-of-war,” indeed. For it is the immediacy and intensity of the collisions of emotions and behaviours that take place between the children in the aforementioned liminal space that the exam tacitly seeks to iron out