“Beijing Bastards” earns an assured niche for itself, along with an international arthouse life, for being the first film to tackle the anger and frustration of today’s youth in China. The 30-year-old helmer Zhang Yuan hits hard at the frail social structures that offer no satisfaction to the post-Cultural Revolution generation growing up with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
The film’s Achilles’ heel is a repetitive narrative structure that wears viewers out. Despite fest fanfare, it appears chiefly aimed at Chinese audiences , who will no doubt appreciate the film more than anyone else if they get a chance to see it.
Like Zhang’s first film, the award-winning “Mama,””Beijing Bastards” was nixed for fest screenings by Chinese authorities, despite its Hong Kong production base. When Locarno refused to withdraw the picture from competition, China pulled its national entry from the meet in retaliation. Given the unsympathetic attitude of officialdom, it remains one of the contradictions of contemporary China that Zhang is able to continue making films, with independent financing and artistic control, about controversial topics.
Equally surprising is film’s emphasis on rock music, and the fact Zhang cut his directing teeth making MTV video clips (he was the first in the country) for Chinese rock star Cui Jian. Though frowned upon, rock has been around for almost a decade in China, where it has become as much an anti-establishment force as it was years ago in the West.
Cui Jian, who helped write and finance “Beijing Bastards,” appears a great deal in the film, both as performer and actor. The rocker’s sound is a rhythmic, hard-rock punch in the stomach, and lyrics like “I only believe in myself” speak strongly about the emptiness of being 20 years old in China.
The young people here lead purposeless lives like disaffected kids everywhere. Pic implies they are spiritually caught between the Tiananmen Square trauma and the pull of economic liberalization, which allows the private sector to grow and presumably brings a measure of freedom. Thus, the main character Karzi is the owner of a pub featuring live music.
Reducing story line to a minimum, Zhang shows his characters one by one in unconnected actions whose common denominator is anger and resentment. Karzi has a fight with his pregnant girlfriend, Maomao, in the opening scene, and she disappears in the rain. For years, Cui Jian’s band has been refused permission to perform a public concert — rock is tolerated only at private parties and clubs. Now they’re losing their rehearsal room.
Karzi, continuing to search for Maomao, ends up raping one of her friends. Then, in a marijuana daze, he imagines her having an abortion. But one day he finds her in a deserted building with the baby she has given birth to — a bizarre note of hope that ends the film.
The film is structured around a long succession of beer-drinking sessions filled with banal dialogue that sounds improvised, intercut with small rock concerts. Though awfully repetitive, the gigs — like the fights, drinking and swearing — have a raw, primal realism that makes them highly convincing. For the same reason, the dark, grubby apartment buildings scattered through the film convey an image of Beijing life quite different from that normally shown.
“Bastards” communicates a strong sense of squalor and brutishness, a depressing lack of purpose and lack of contact between people. All told, pic is quite a downer. It is finely lensed by cinematographer Zhang Jian.