Undoubtedly the most bizarrely skewed vision of history to emerge from China or anywhere else, Wake Li’s unique underground curio “Crack” interprets the changing social scene through the eyes of a man with a single focus in life: masturbation. The hero doesn’t ignore what is happening around him so much as create a private fetishistic universe out of the cultural materials at hand. From a “Swan Lake” pas de deux to a student protestor’s stocking, all are grist for the five finger mill. Weird, elliptical piece, at once socially scathing and autistically distanced, pic could prove offbeat ringer at fests.
Bouncing back and forth in time, with barely a segue or transitional indicator and only the central character’s age as gauge of the scrambled chronology, pic covers the years between the Cultural Revolution and the present. In helmer Li’s oblique slant, political developments impact the hero in ways so extreme and so absurd that it is impossible for an audience to react through simple identification.
Thus when the girl next door is unjustly pilloried as a slut — or “worn shoes” (as the somewhat surreal subtitles say) — and raped by the very Red Guard leader who accuses her of immorality, 7-year-old Xiang Yang’s reaction is to sniff the stool she stood on and steal her shoes which he later masturbates with (Xiang not only jerks off to a variety of stimuli, he masturbates with posters, slippers, books).
The absurdity of the film’s various manifestations of social oppression in no way mitigates the totalitarian horror described, just as the characters’ immeasurable pettiness does not make their victimization all right. Thus Xiang’s bitterly resentful, ever-quarreling father and mother are arrested by the Red Guard because a very young Xiang, using his father’s ranting about lice in his crotch as an excuse to go on a louse-hunt of his own and abruptly drop his pants in front of his little girlfriend, unwittingly reveals his father’s “anti-social” complaints about poverty.
Helmer Li spells out no cross-temporal logic to neatly order the fragmented scenes. The voiceover narration that occasionally fills in exposition or recounts Xiang’s feelings, particularly in scenes with Xiang as a boy, is so sporadic and haphazard that it winds up only increasing the overall arbitrariness. Yet there is a tremendous sense of the waste of a life, wryly mocked though it may be.
Tech credits were impossible to judge in the poor video transfer of the original 35mm film, while antic, sped-through subtitles added further dementia to the proceedings.