An affecting and magnificently photographed love story set in a Chinese mining town during the massive economic reforms of the 1980s and ‘90s, “The Poet” is the best film yet by Shanghai born writer-director Liu Hao (“Back to the North,” “Addicted to Love”). With subtlety and no small amount of eroticism, Liu shapes the tale of a poet and his wife into an absorbing study in how social status, financial fortunes, and personal relationships were affected by winds of change sweeping through the nation. “The Poet” looks certain to travel widely on the festival circuit and has claims for theatrical exposure in foreign territories.
The fabric connecting the film’s themes of love, ambition, and jealousy can be found in the woolen stockings worn by Hui (Song Jia), the adoring wife of Wu (Zhu Yawen), an aspiring poet and worker at Heija Hill coal mine in northern China. In a beautiful early sequence, the couple return to their basic dwelling on the town’s dusty main road. Once inside, they become frisky, with Wu gleefully pulling a loose thread from one of his wife’s leggings, causing it to unravel. The erotic charge generated during this playful act is positively scintillating, and Liu uses the recurring motif of Hui’s stockings to powerful effect as the tale unfolds.
The helmer sharply contrasts Hui and Wu’s deep love and lively relationship with the realities of work and the social pecking order. This is the tail-end of the era when everyone was called “comrade,” working-class labor and collective effort were paramount, and becoming a state cadre was essential for career advancement. While Wu studies at night to improve his lot, Hui works diligently at a fabric dyeing factory. Such is her devotion to Wu that she declines an opportunity to attend college, which would ensure elevation to the ranks of state cadres.
The couple’s chance to get ahead quickly arrives when a poem by Wu is published in a prominent national magazine. After winning praise from celebrated senior poet Zhang Mu (Zhou Liging), which in turn brings glory to Heija Hill itself, Wu is approached by propaganda officer Liu (Han Jin) and given a job in his department. Further acclaim follows when Hui acquires a rare mimeograph machine from teacher Shen (Kang Bo) and exquisitely hand-carves then prints an extended work by Wu entitled “Love Is Coal.” Its success cements Wu’s reputation and grants him celebrity status.
As the years roll by, Wu displays little enthusiasm for his role, eventually losing his job and social standing. Worse still, a comment about Hui’s stockings convinces Wu that his wife is conducting an affair with Zhang Mu, for whom she now works. At the same time, Wu has become susceptible to the advances of Hui’s friend and former co-worker Li Li (Zhang Yao).
The downward spiral in the marriage is potently chronicled against the backdrop of rapid change in Heija Hill. When the inefficient mine is decommissioned, there are winners and losers. Some, like Old Yang (Huo Guanxi), the mine’s cheery watchman, fall into melancholia. Others, such as Wu’s former work team leader Bing (Xu Ning), become entrepreneurs in the new economy. In a bitterly ironic scene, Wu approaches Bing for financial support to stage a poetry competition. With public interest in poetry declining and poets no longer enjoying prominence in state affairs, Bing can offer nothing except sympathy.
Though more could have been made of political factors at play during Wu’s fall from grace, there is no mystery surrounding Hui. Her absolute dedication to Wu’s work and belief in the beauty and power of words leaves no doubt that she is the real poet of the film’s title.
Song and Hu’s outstanding central performances are complemented by excellence in production design, costuming, and cinematography. Li Bingqian’s glorious widescreen imagery is rich in earthy textures and gorgeous soft lighting of faces in the film’s early sections. A deliberately less sculptured, more direct visual scheme is employed as characters move from an old world of certainty into a new environment of doubt and anxiety. A significant chunk of the film’s $2.2 million budget was assigned to building the township of Heija Hill. It’s money very well spent. For the record, the version screened in competition at the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival was the festival cut; a domestic release version is currently being completed.