So Close to Paradise (China, 1998)

My current research project as Lecturer in Film Studies at Nanjing University is a study of the cinema of Lou Ye, the Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker whose credits consist of Weekend Lover (1995), Suzhou River (2000), Purple Butterfly (2003), Summer Palace (2006) and Spring Fever (2009). In order to put Lou’s work into context, I have been viewing films by other Sixth Generation directors. The following review will be the first of three pieces (editor’s note: the second and third are here and here, respectively) for VCinema that consider Chinese films of social-political significance from the past fifteen years.

Of all the Chinese films that have struggled – and often failed – to secure a commercial release in their country of origin due to the strict polices of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, the slow-burning crime drama So Close to Paradise is perhaps the least likely candidate for such censorship restriction. Wang Xiaoshuai’s third feature was actually developed within the state-affiliated studio system as the director was keen to ensure some professional stability after being blacklisted due to the content of his two previous films, The Days (1993) and Frozen (1997), both portraits of artistic communities that emphasised the importance of the individual voice in Chinese society. The ban was actually imposed after The Days was screened at international festivals without state permission, so Wang worked under the pseudonym of ‘Wu Ming’ (or ‘Anonymous’) while filming Frozen. Once he was officially allowed to resume filmmaking activities, Wang chose to do so through commercial channels and So Close to Paradise was set up at Beijing Film Studios in 1994. However, the director was still keen to smuggle some social-political commentary through the system via the narrative framework of film noir, an effort that did not go unnoticed by the financers during production or the censorship board on submission. Numerous delays prevented this seemingly straight-forward genre piece from reaching mainland screens until 1998, and it would not be seen internationally until 1999 when it was shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. This eventual release is testament to Wang’s tenacity, as although he made some cuts at the insistence of the Chinese censors, they were never entirely happy with the revised versions of the film and ultimately passed So Close to Paradise because they were tired of repeatedly dealing with the director. What remains after all this arguing is an intriguing hybrid of noir trappings and social realism that arguably paved the way for the subsequent success of Wang’s former Beijing Film Academy classmate Lou Ye with the similarly styled Suzhou River (2000).

Set in the late 1980s in the central city of Wuhan, the film follows the fortunes of Dongzi (Yu Shi) and Gao Ping (Guo Tao), two transplants to the region who share living space but otherwise lead very separate lives. Dongzi works as a pole carrier at the docks, making a meagre daily wage for undertaking physically strenuous work. Gao Ping is an older man who comes from the same village as Dongzi, yet has reinvented himself as a ‘businessman’, although Dongzi remains clueless with regards to the specifics of his roommate’s profession. It soon becomes apparent that Gao Ping is actually a small time criminal and, after being cheated out of some cash by local gangster Su Wu (Wuo Tao), insists that the innocent Dongzi assists him with retrieving the money. They visit a seedy nightspot called the Li Li Club in order to talk to Ruan Hong (Wang Tong), a sultry Vietnamese singer who is rumoured to know Su Wu, but questioning leads to kidnapping as Gao Ping decides to drag the woman back to the apartment and hold her there until she reveals Su Wu’s whereabouts. When the singer refuses to provide any information, Gao Ping rapes her while Dongzi peers through a crack in the door and the naïve ‘shoulder pole’ is surprised when, after this physical violation, Ruan Hong becomes Gao Ping’s live-in lover; however, this romantic relationship proves to be short-lived as Ruan Hong storms out over Gao Ping’s obsession with getting his money back. Having been a largely passive observer up until this point, Dongzi takes a more active role in the narrative; he follows Ruan Hong after her abrupt break-up with Gao Ping, listening patiently as she tells him about her dreams of becoming successful singer, then has to deal with both gangsters and the police when Gao Ping’s efforts to retrieve his money backfire, causing the ‘businessman’ to go on the run.

The initial interference of Wang’s backers at Beijing Film Studios and subsequent changes enforced by the censors are evident in the noticeable yet neglected undercurrent of sexual desire, which simmers away but is never fully realised. The sexuality of Dongzi is particularly vague; he starts behaving in an immature manner once Gao Ping and Ruan Hong become an item, playing childish games of one-upmanship and eavesdropping on the couple when they are arguing or making love, but while he is obviously struggling to articulate deeply-rooted feelings of jealousy, it is not clear who he is actually jealous of. On the one hand, he seems to be attracted to Ruan Hong, but although he has several opportunities to make a move during her more vulnerable moments, their relationship remains purely platonic. On the other hand, he expresses reservations about Gao Ping’s attitude towards getting ahead financially, stating that, ‘people should make money by their labour and shouldn’t break the law’, and also disapproves of his mistreatment of Ruan Hong, yet clearly looks up to his roommate, trying to physically emulate him after his disappearance by wearing his clothes. The original title of the film was The Vietnamese Girl, establishing the Ruan Hong character as an exotic object of desire, but the eventual title of So Close to Paradise is more moralistic, in tone, suggesting that these characters are always one step away from achieving personal happiness and professional success because of their fringe involvement in illegal activities. Throughout the film there is an inherent tension between these two themes with Wang’s camera lingering on suggestive looks that indicate barely suppressed passion – even if it is not entirely clear who that passion is reserved for – while the narrative stumbles forward in a manner that points out that crime does not pay, leaving tantalising glimpses of a more complex love triangle amid the matter-of-fact plotting.

This is not to say that what remains is an impersonal genre piece, as Wang still strives to put his own stamp on the narrative form of film noir, thereby revitalising some potentially hackneyed elements. The voice-over, perhaps the most clichéd characteristic of noir, is utilised to provide the barely articulate Dongzi with a voice, as he reflects on the events with the benefit of hindsight and some awareness of city living; replacing the traditionally hard-boiled musings of the cynical narrator with the thoughts of an uneducated country boy provides some social perspective as the migrant worker learns the hard way that a solid work ethic is not sufficient to survive in an economically resurgent China. Gao Ping and Ruan Hong conform to the noir archetypes of, respectively, small-time chancer and femme fatale, but both also serve as comments on – or criticisms of – Westernisation. The upwardly mobile Gao Ping looks the part with his smart suits and American cigarettes but makes promises and threats that he cannot keep, while Ruan Hong dresses fashionably, chews gum and sings in a Western-style bar, yet is identified as a sex worker when police raid the Li Li Club as part of an on-going anti-prostitution operation. Telling the story from Dongzi’s point of view also enables Wang to experiment with ellipses, leaving out scenes that would be integral to almost any other film noir – Gao Ping winning Ruan Hong’s affections after treating her in a brutal manner, Gao Ping committing the act of murder – yet are here ultimately secondary to the director’s exploration of conflicting attitudes in a changing society. So Close to Paradise was shot in Wang’s home city when it was undergoing considerable redevelopment and the presence of construction companies looms large, not only in the background of the frame, but on the soundtrack which picks up a lot of noise, unintentionally adding to the authenticity. Wang would play safe with his next studio project, The House (1999), before going underground again for the better-known Beijing Bicycle (2001), but So Close to Paradise remains an admirable attempt to stretch the limits of the system at a time when the Sixth Generation was only beginning to accumulate its social-political capital.