If the “slacker movie” moment happened in the U.S. in part as a new generation’s reaction against the economic boom — and growing income inequality — of the 1980s and ’90s, it’s high time a similar indie movement emerged in China, where rampant economic expansion and its many casualties have been the ceaseless story of the past four decades. And perhaps it will, now that there’s an unassumingly perfect foundational text in Wei Shujun’s debut feature, “Striding Into the Wind,” which may be set in modern-day Beijing but putters along like an affectionate throwback to the droll rhythms of early Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch.
Certainly, in terms of storyline, those touch points are more evident in Wei’s episodic, personal narrative than are Hou Hsiao-hsien or Wong Kar-wai or even Hong Sang-soo — the filmmakers overtly name-checked by Ming (Wang Xiaomu), the director of the film-within-a-film in this mischievously meta long-form doodle. Ming is making his thesis film — the semi-improvised story of a Mongolian herdswoman searching for her husband in a Beijing amusement park — and has hired fellow film student Kun (Zhou You) as his sound engineer. (Wei originally studied movie sound, and there is some rueful satire in how poorly sound guys are treated here, especially compared with director Ming’s borderline hero-worship of his film’s DP.)
Kun, a lanky fellow sporting a hipster mullet, has in turn recruited his chubby, good-natured but even more shambolic best friend Tong (Tong Linkai) as his boom operator. Together the two snigger through lectures on foley techniques in courses Kun has repeated rather too often. After-hours they try out quick make-a-buck schemes that inevitably come to naught: primping a local businessman’s dreams of pop stardom; happening on a sideline in selling purloined exam papers. Kun’s father is a police officer, his mother a schoolteacher, and he also has a girlfriend, Zhi (Zheng Yingchen), who works as a hostess at marketing events in malls and hotels. But perhaps his most meaningful relationship, and the one that gives this loose-limbed story whatever shape it has, is with his pre-owned Jeep.
Kun doesn’t have a license and can barely cover the gas costs, let alone the upkeep, on a vehicle so frequently in need of replacement parts that by the end it’s a kind of Jeep of Theseus, its only remaining original feature being its tenacious coat of dirt. But without landing too heavily on the metaphor (the screenplay by Wei and Gao Linyang takes care to appear carefree), the clapped-out car also represents exactly the kind of rugged, adventurous individualism that China’s conformist, money- and status-oriented new society makes little room for. The very first scene is of Kun flaming out spectacularly during a driving lesson in which a convoy of identical white hatchbacks weave obediently through a cramped obstacle course of traffic bollards. And toward the end, when Kun has lost not just his car but his mullet and is wearing the same bright orange jumpsuit as his fellow detainees, he looks out a window to where a squadron of prisoners are exercising in formation. From high above, they form the patterns of uplifting Chinese characters, every man in his place, each indistinguishable from his neighbor.
Scenes like these, and background details like the velvet-rope section in a high-rise car park or the peeling U.S. road-map decal on the Jeep’s back windshield — tell us there’s more under the hood of Wei’s disarmingly perceptive film. And Wang Jiehong’s quietly excellent cinematography bears that out: Even when the pacing lags during yet another entertaining but unnecessary example of Kun’s fecklessness, there’s always an arresting shot or some inventive staging to make it worthwhile. Perhaps there is a little Hou Hsiao-hsien, after all, in the precise choreography of two glass elevators during a long take in a mall. And maybe there is a little lo-fi Wong Kar-wai in an unexpected nighttime tryst that occurs perfectly framed in a smear of light caught in the windscreen’s grime.
Eventually, Kun makes his oft-touted road trip to Inner Mongolia, to shoot pickup footage for Ming’s film and record authentic grassland ambience. But that journey, too, is a letdown: The local chief puts on a “very ethnic minority-ish” show for the visitors, and any other angle on the carefully dressed set — a small nomad’s tent — reveals electricity pylons and corrugated shacks nearby. It’s a bittersweet last hurrah for this brief, doomed love affair between a young man and — age-gap critics take note — his distinctly elderly Jeep, and a strangely moving analogy for the fading hopes of even the most disaffected youth, realizing that the trap of adulthood is much bigger than previously imagined, and it has already been sprung.