A young Beijing couple experience their own private sense of dislocation in “Conjugation,” a semi-impressionistic look at the social stasis during the crackdown that followed the Tiananmen Square events of 1989. Set during the winter of 1989-90, pic is an impressive calling card for first-time writer-director Emily Tang who, despite some needlessly obscure poetic musings, generates involving performances from her cast and an accessible way of putting over her message. Arthouse exposure looks to be a tough sell, but play on specialized webs should help to get her name out there.
Late in the movie, the financially destitute couple dig out a pair of fish frozen in a lake and take them home to boil and eat. It’s a neat metaphor for their situation — two people trying to make a start in their adult lives who find themselves trapped by the country’s chilly torpor. Though the partly autobiographical script makes no direct references to politics, Tang, who shot the film without a license in Beijing, took the precaution of making it through her own Hong Kong-registered company, making export technically legal. All postproduction was done in H.K.
Guo Song (Qian Yu) is a university graduate who sets up home in a vacant back streets bungalow with his girlfriend, Xiaoqing (Zhao Hong). They’re madly in love and, while she makes shopping lists and studies French, he works in an assigned job in a factory. It’s six months after the student demonstrations were put down in Tiananmen and the feeling of collegiate solidarity is now gone.
The couple is happy enough, initially, relishing their freedom away from home and making love under their thick blankets at night. However, the realities of life soon impact on the couple’s love nest, which they are also inhabiting illegally. Xiaoqing gets a job as a waitress in a coffee bar, and Guo Song tries selling stockings and scarves on the street. Then Xiaoqing gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion.
The only point at which the picture makes any reference to Tiananmen is when the couple briefly passes through the wintry square in a taxi on their way back from the hospital — a brief, silent sequence that catches the emotional despair and limbo through which the country was passing. Elsewhere, their private aspirations are mirrored by spoken extracts from poems by Hai Zi — a self-consciously arty gambit by Tang that jars with the otherwise realistic tone.
There’s almost no plot in the conventional sense, with the film being more a series of mood studies and small events. The world in which the couple move is just slightly out of synch with normality, as is Xiaoqing’s behavior following her abortion. Pic’s weirdest moments come when, without warning, she suddenly berates customers in her bar with strange horror stories, her face set in a rigid mask.
Zhao is excellent as Xiaoqing, moving from gleeful delight in building a home of her own to a mute acceptance that a brief period in her life (read: Chinese history) is over and gone. Qian and the other cast members are all fine.
Pic’s Chinese title literally means “Verb Conjugation,” referring to the characters’ attempts to “conjugate” their lives anew. The movie’s biggest, unspoken irony is at the very end, with the announcement, in January 1990, of the partial lifting of the city’s curfew and martial law — ushering in a decade of spectacular economic growth and personal freedoms undreamed of by the film’s characters.