The high price of the commodification of China’s Cultural Revolution is made painstakingly clear in “The Back,” scribe-helmer Liu Bingjian’s largely 1990s-set adaptation of Jing Ge’s novel. Though the protag, the son of a despotic communist-era printmaker, is a withdrawn and mostly silent character, Liu’s mastery of narrative, sound and visuals ensure this scarred individual’s story comes through loud and clear, while also suggesting wider truths about the difficult relationship between the country’s troubled past and its current economic climate. Though HD lensing is not of the highest quality, this is otherwise first-rate fest fare.
Liu is probably still most famous for his fictional (and locally censored) look at homosexuals in China, “Men and Women” (1999). He has since made the equally strong “Cry Woman” and the forgettable “Plastic Flowers” before dedicating himself to “The Back,” which he worked on for some 10 years, per press notes. The result is certainly his most ambitious and complex work to date.
In the mid-1990s, Hong Tao (singer-actor Hu Bing), a handsome but scruffy 30-year-old, moves from the countryside to Beijing, where he starts working at a restaurant and roams art galleries specializing in representations of Mao and images from the Cultural Revolution.
Short flashbacks to his childhood two decades earlier immediately make clear why Hong’s interested in these works: During the Cultural Revolution, Hong’s father was a celebrated printmaker and staunch communist who was unhealthily obsessed with his own portraits of Mao. Still haunted by his childhood, Hong has become a very reserved young man, shy about physical contact and not very forthcoming in his interactions with even his g.f., Hua Dan (Jia Yuanyuan), and best pal, Wenge (Xu Chengfeng).
Though peppered with Hong’s visits to some of the major tourist attractions in and near Beijing, “The Back” is less interested in these major sites than in the countless smaller insights into a man’s coping mechanisms and ways of exorcising a past he literally can’t leave behind.
Along the way, pic also explores the marked contrasts between communist China in the late 1960s and early ’70s and its capitalist equivalent some 20 years later, and the strange forms of interaction between them; late 20th-century art sellers’ interest in wares made during (and glorifying) the Cultural Revolution is only the tip of the iceberg.
Hu, a former athlete and model, here steps out of his comfort zone in a severely deglammed role he carries with grace, making Hong a withdrawn but far from unreadable protag. Thesp is aided by Liu’s decision to keep his character’s embarrassing secret hidden on his back — a potent visual metaphor that’s offscreen for most of the film, turning it into a ghostly specter that hovers just beyond view.
Though pic features quite a few strong visual moments — including a shot of Hong in a gray shirt, standing in front of Mao’s portrait at Tiananmen Square, almost fusing the two men together — the quality of Zheng Jiansong’s HD lensing is only so-so, with daylight colors often unsteady and flaky at the screening caught, and strangely antiseptic landscapes in especially the second half of the film, set in the Himalayas.
Yang Yuhui blends sounds from the two timelines to underline Hong’s confused and haunted mind. The rest of the tech package is more than adequate.