Winter After Winter (China, 2019) [NYAFF 2019]

Following his successful first feature Seven Days (2015), Xing Jian continues his masterful use of black and white in Winter After Winter. Set in 1944 during the occupation of Manchuria when the Japanese were searching the countryside for Chinese laborers, this is the story of a family’s struggle to survive poverty, fear and oppression in a Japanese controlled China.

The opening credits are accompanied by lively Manchurian folk music (film score by Dong Dongdong) followed by 20 minutes of one continuous take where the scenes interweave in this dramatic satire. In one room, the father, (Qiang Gao) forces his impotent eldest son, Lao Da, and his wife Kun (Yan Bingyan) to sign divorce papers; in another room, a Japanese commander is waiting to take the three sons away whilst  being entertained by the village elder who is quoting Confucius. To add to the absurdity, the father, whose main concern is to ensure the continuation of his bloodline, then tries to persuade his youngest son Lao San (Liu Di) to impregnate Kun, his sister-in-law. Under pressure, Lao San is unable to complete the task before the Japanese commander loses patience and takes Lao Da and Lao San away in the back of a truck. The youngest son is extremely distraught and cannot stop crying out and we suddenly hear the sound of a gun but at this stage, we don’t know who has been shot. Meanwhile, Lao Er (Yuan Liguo), the second son, runs away….. and all this in the first 20 minutes!

Strong cultural tradition and ancestor worship are an underlying theme in Xing’s film. The father asks the spirit of the deceased to provide him with an heir by praying and burning incense in front of a cremation urn. This household is very much run by the older male and people look to advice from the elders in the village. Women do not have much of a say and in this case, not a single word is uttered by the main female character; she is silent and totally passive throughout. Her name was not chosen by chance: the Chinese character kun signifies “obedient and submissive”.  According to the producer Yang Dandan, when the actress Yan Binggan read the script, she became totally obsessed with playing Kun and much of the film’s dramatic tension relies on her sensitivity and acting skills. Xing wanted to highlight women’s role in society before 1949 and this did not go beyond reproduction and housekeeping. We find out later that she was rescued from a pile of dead bodies by Lao Si so he certainly thinks that she owes him and should produce him an heir.

When Lao San escapes from the Japanese, he goes back to his father’s house and hides in the vegetable cellar where Kun discovers him and looks after him. There is an awkward sex scene between the two and she gets pregnant. Lao Si, forever scheming, finds out eventually and arranges for her to marry the village idiot so as to hide the truth from the Japanese. Most of the men in the story, including the Japanese Commander, appear to lack empathy and courage, but Kun, on the other hand, always shows kindness, even though she is portrayed as an unbearable victim. This is hard to watch at times. 

Winter After Winter is entirely filmed in black and white but for a brief out-of-focus shot of red colour towards the end; this is a bit clumsy and leaves the viewer puzzled. The story is an interesting allegory but the characters are primitive and unappealing and this along with frequent changes of tone are the movie’s shortcomings. It ends, however, on a positive note, once again showing Kun’s tenderness in a harsh male world.

Xing’s background in art has given him the tools to create great aesthetic compositions; before attending the Meishi Film Academy in Chongqing, he graduated from the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts.   To watch Winter After Winter, the viewer has to be ready and patient because it is long and intense. The first 20 minutes may discourage restless viewers used to more action but the dedicated cinephile will certainly be rewarded by this exceptional art film’s attention to detail and splendid camera work.

Winter After Winter was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 5.