Shot more than three years ago, and only now made available by the Chinese authorities in a re-edited version, “The Making of Steel” is a flawed but still highly intriguing look at a young man’s search for identity and the erosion of his childhood dreams and beliefs in contempo, semi-capitalist China. Despite its sometimes choppy narrative, this first feature by former art student Lu Xuechang , following several shorts, well deserves exposure on specialized webs for its ambitious structure and timely theme.
A graduate of Beijing Film Academy in 1990, Lu, now 34, made the movie for famed Fifth Generation helmer Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Beijing Film Studio–based production unit specializing in works by independent young directors (the so-called Sixth Generation). After several re-edits and a change in its Chinese title, it was finally released locally in August 1997, and was screened in the fall’s Shanghai Film Festival. Pic is reportedly available for foreign sales but not, unfortunately, for festivals, its natural home.
Film is bookended by a magical sequence in which two young boys gaze in childhood wonder at the distant Great Wall, lit like an idealized symbol of China’s cultural heritage. One of them is pic’s adult narrator, Zhou Qing, whose story begins in Beijing in 1976 as a young shantytown kid whose dreams were powered by a book called “The Making of Steel.” Said tome, describing a Ukrainian boy’s passage to manhood, was a comic-strip version of a novel by Soviet author Nikolai Ostrovsky written 60 years ago.
In his scrubby neighborhood, Zhou mixes with young adults Jiwen, a guitarist, and Fu Shaoying, Jiwen’s girl. His best buddy is a kid called Xiao Mo. Time passes, the Gang of Four falls, the barrio is demolished, and China slowly comes out of its cultural cocoon. The ambitious, irascible Jiwen sets up a band in which Fu is the lead singer, and Zhou and Xiao Mo are invited to join. Zhou develops a sexual infatuation for Fu, but it’s a one-sided relationship — nicely sketched in a scene where they talk alone but then bed down platonically.
Some time later, Zhou gets a dreary job at a bathhouse for railway workers, where he’s taken under the wing of a taciturn but kindly train driver, Zhu Helai (co-exec producer Tian). It’s here, some 30 minutes in, that the movie starts to develop a head of steam, as Zhu, who has a copy of the original “Steel” novel, becomes an inspiration to the kid, imbuing him with a sense of purpose as he explains the novel’s subtext — developing an iron will to deal with life’s hardships. Tian’s strong, rough-hewn perf is one of the movie’s delights.
Story then skips from the early to late ’80s, as Zhou returns from a spell in Germany to a modernizing, fast-track Beijing. Xiao Mo is now a drunken, druggie skinhead in a rock band, Jiwen a music promoter who gives him a job as a guitarist, and Fu a yuppie businesswoman. By chance, Zhou also befriends a young dropout from the provinces who hates Beijingers and has just had an abortion. Surrounded by people with whom he can no longer relate, Zhou tries to track down his spiritual mentor, Zhu.
Despite cuts made to the film — reportedly six sequences — that render some of the narrative jumpy and confusing, this is still a remarkably grounded portrait of life in present-day China, tacitly acknowledging a lack of direction and hero figures among the post–Cultural Revolution generation, and a pursuit of material values over lasting friendships. Neither subject is new, but Lu’s presentation has a fresh ring, both in the scope of the narrative and the notepad-like way in which it is related, with life’s setbacks and tiny twists of fate peppering the story. The elliptical structure (with frequent use of rapid fadeouts) is held together by the adult Zhou’s voiceover throughout the movie, like a reverie for lost innocence — as such, the pic is remarkably conservative in its values but at least has a point of view (unlike, say, Zhang Yuan’s “Beijing Bastards,” which simply presents Gen-X nihilism at face value).
Many small details of changing times and mores are exceedingly well caught, especially the disappearance of social niceties and the appearance of new social codes alongside the country’s evolution. Performances, too, are remarkably good, from both older and younger actors. (Lu Liping, one of China’s finest female thesps, is almost thrown away in a tiny role, as Zhu’s former girlfriend.) Print caught had a bright, slightly bleached look, though not enough to detract from the fine, varied lensing by Zhang Xigui, which becomes less neatly composed as the film progresses. Gentle guitar score by lead actor Zhu Hongmao, who plays the adult Zhou, is effectively reflective and laid-back.
Pic’s original Chinese production title (Gangtie shi zenyang lianchengde) was a direct translation of the Soviet novel. The bland current one roughly translates as “Growing to Manhood.”