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07: Huahua's Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations, A Long Journey Home
on Daphne Xu's Huahua's Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations (2022) and Wenqian Zhang’s A Long Journey Home (2022), and on tradition and modernity.
“How things are now doesn’t determine how things can be.”
The best non-fiction films make the most ordinary things seem interesting. This is true of Daphne Xu’s Huahua's Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations (2022), a film that opens with a visual trick that neatly displays its idiosyncratic tone. What looks like swirling green smoke seen in close-up is shown instead to be the whirlpooling waters of a washing up bowl, revealed in a smash cut to a mid-shot of the film’s main character Huahua vigorously scrubbing her clothes. It is a fitting opening for a film about an individual doing her utmost to find distraction, if not necessarily satisfaction, in her day-to-day because Xu demonstrates how, with a simple shift in perspective, a routine activity can be transformed into something exciting and strange.
As the sequence continues, this idea is furthered, Xu fixating obsessively on the sensorial details of manual labour in a manner that exposes her background as a Harvard fellow and a Sensory Ethnography Lab associate. As Huahua works away at her clothes, the background sloshing and washing sounds are amplified to the point of distraction and the grubby image becomes increasingly abstracted through the use of an all-too-close roaming close-up. The frame collapses into an abstract mess of skin, water, texture, and fabric as the bright pops of the boldly coloured clothing contrast against the dull hues of the room’s stained walls and cracked floors. A quotidian household act is vividly defamiliarised, making the routine seem surreal and new.
Despite formal flourishes like this, Huahua's Dazzling World may at first seem like a familiar observational ethnographic portrait of a low-income semi-rural family home, but it is eventually made clear that Xu’s interest in her subject is more specific. Huahua and her family live in Xiong'an, an area located around 100km southwest of Beijing that has undergone rapid redevelopment since being selected by the Chinese government in 2017 as the site of the construction of a “new economic zone”, but the life that they lead is not noticeably modern. As it is depicted in the film, Xiong'an is nondescript, a grey blur of generic shopfronts, construction sites, and brownfield land. There is little that suggests that any of the economic benefits seen from this expansion have trickled down to Huahua’s family or made any perceivable difference to the quality of their lives. They live in relative poverty, under the thumb of a (rarely seen, frequently spoken of) husband-father figure. Yet, when the film’s next shot shows Huahua’s children with their heads down, eyes locked into their phones, an ulterior zone is suggested, a world beyond the claustrophobic four walls of the home. Where they live is unimportant because the internet offers opportunity for an escape.
By livestreaming on Kuaishou, a video-sharing platform particularly popular in China’s “lower-tier” cities, a woman who is, in her own words, “Illiterate and uneducated” and “stressed every day to the point of death” sees the potential to reach out beyond her narrow confines. Wearing a costume of brightly-coloured accessories, Huahua dances wildly in the streets, bemusing groups of local onlookers while winning the acclaim of an ever-growing audience that tunes into her streams, rewarding her with a slow fortune in small tips and compliments. Sometimes Huahua acts as an on-demand micro-influencer for local businesses and stores, but mostly she just streams her family’s exploits at home, making her disinterested children act as characters in a Keeping Up with the Kardashians style reality TV stream of her life. In one scene, she even streams a dental appointment, dementedly holding her phone over her head and addressing her viewers in a muffled voice as the dentist prods away. In another, she talks openly about the misery of her workaday life, telling a fan she would leave her husband for him, making half-hearted, likely disingenuous promises and plans. “I livestream because they like watching me,” she says at one point. The more she is seen, the more she wants to stream. Every moment becomes a possible avenue for content; everything in life can be converted into something to share.
This lurid self-broadcasting can be odd to observe, but Xu’s angle on Huahua does not feel exploitative. As unglamorous a form of portraiture this may be, it is still fundamentally sympathetic. “She’s a professional videographer,” Huahua says at one point about the filmmaker, explaining the omnipresence of yet another camera within the family home. Like the streams that provide an outlet that her oppressive husband denies her, being made the subject of a documentary feature film seems to give Huahua an understanding that her perspective is legitimate, that her voice is one that people want to hear. “She’s from Beijing,” Huahua adds with a grin, impressed at being made the subject of outside interest from a visitor from China’s centre of power.
What is not necessarily clear is whether Huahua really needs to be filmed by Xu, seeing as she is already sharing her own story so freely on Kuaishou. If it can be said that the internet has deterritorialized everything, acting almost to make the touristic presence of the visiting documentarian obsolete, why bother to depict someone when they already have all the tools needed to document themselves? The answer is self-evident, but the ending of Huahua's Dazzling World works well in reaffirming it, closing ecstatically on a double perspective street scene with Xu’s camera pirouetting around Huahua while she dances emphatically to frenetic Chinese EDM in view of her front-facing phone camera. As social media demonstrates, an individual's own self-representation is fundamentally unreliable. Sometimes an impartial interlocutor is useful not just to expose the reality behind the subjectivity (and selectivity) of a self-directed lens, but also to place proceedings within the wider context that makes them worthwhile. More than just a film about an eccentric woman seeking fame and fortune through madcap dance routines and an arsenal of uncanny de-ageing facial filters, Huahua's Dazzling World shows a jarring collision between modernity and tradition. The old fades away in the background while the new competes aggressively for attention in the foreground, gyrating and wildly flailing its limbs.
Also a formalist film focusing on a Chinese family, Wenqian Zhang’s A Long Journey Home (2022) addresses similar themes. After returning to her family home in Jiangsu having studied abroad, Zhang films everything, placing the camera in various corners of the house and recording the cantankerous exchanges that occur between family members living in claustrophobic proximity. “You are still recording now?” Zhang’s mother asks at the start of the film, while she and Zhang are seen sitting next to each other on Zhang’s bed. “No,” Zhang replies, lying brazenly as the camera then continues to roll. A Long Journey Home is a peculiar sort of participatory documentary, one made with reluctant participants that results in a family portrait in which almost every member of the family is shown in a bad light.
This may sound like a criticism of the film, but it is not intended as such. Zhang’s willingness to show her family at its most hostile is a brave choice. It displays an awareness that within her deeply personal family story is something more universal. As well as making for a compelling formal conceit where Zhang is herself present in many of the frames she composes, the result is the creation of a film that shows the specifics of one family’s breakdown but also represents a wider intergenerational divide in China in which there are significant disagreements over what an individual’s commitments are to the society they live in, or what exactly constitutes a good life.
Structured as it is almost entirely around bad-tempered arguments, the film is full of conflict and consternation. These occur mostly between Zhang’s mother and father, who share the same living space but are effectively separated; but also between her father and his brother, who squabble mostly about money and pride; and between Zhang and her mother, who differ enormously, and seemingly irreconcilably, in their view of the world. In the background, the grandparents’ despondent silence seems to express more disappointment in how things have turned out than any spoken words could convey. Zhang’s mother, whose rage is often incandescent, is tortured by the state of the family and her life, whereas her father just seems lost and forlorn. Letters read aloud by her father communicate a sense of a past which stretches beyond the continual present tense of the observational documentary format, filling in the narrative gaps of the family’s ill-fortunes that are referenced in their arguments. Over time, a picture emerges that shows what happened to those who missed out on the spoils of China’s booming pre- and post-millennium economic expansions, as well as the pressures of the traditional familial system and how it weighs on both the subjugated party and the oppressor expected to maintain the patriarchal charade.
Zhang’s use of static widescreen compositions which run in long unbroken takes has the effect of making the film’s shouting matches seem particularly stage-like, with different characters moving between rooms and in and out of the frame. The technique makes for a film that, with its long stretches of unmediated actuality, is essentially non-interventionist, but, because of the rigorous formalism of having all the shots framed on tripods in room corners, still feels authored and tightly controlled. In one scene which seems to nod to Chantal Akerman, the camera pans slowly and dramatically from left to right whilst a letter is read aloud; and in general, the film feels studied and structural, making great use of the interplay between the chaotic unpredictability of the real and the challenges posed by shaping it into a film.
Given that documentary subjects are said to perform in front of the transforming presence of a camera, questions arise about what characters this film’s participants are trying to portray. Zhang’s mother’s attempts at communication mostly take the form of attacks, and her presence in the film is marked by a series of vicious tirades of verbal abuse directed towards a husband, who, at one point, almost comically defeated, offers only a pathetic pair of questions by way of reply: “Am I not a man?” he says. “Do I even still have a place in this home?” Many of the scenes featuring Zhang’s father concern his ineptitude, him having failed in business multiple times; while the ones that involve Zhang and her mother are focused mostly on Zhang’s life choices, specifically her desire to pursue art and her refusal to get married, start a family, and buy a home. In one moment, a visibly exasperated Zhang interrupts her mother’s lecturing to tell her that she is “also a person living in this society,” hoping for an empathetic response that her mother resolutely refuses to provide. “You must buy a house and get married,” her mother barks back without hesitation, because this of course is what any person should do.
In this sense, A Long Journey Home seems to be in dialogue with the “lie flat” trend, a phenomenon in China which mirrors what media outlets in the UK and US have been calling “the great resignation,” where dispirited employees are supposedly dropping out of the workforce in ever-increasing numbers, or “antiwork,” where workers push back against dissatisfying capitalistic conditions through passive forms of resistance. According to the “lie flat” theory, young people in China are rejecting a unforgiving system of over-demanding work and education, choosing instead, much to the consternation of the Chinese government, to live a low-pressure, high-pleasure “low desire life.” Of course, Zhang is not dropping out of anything, only choosing the life she wants for herself rather than blindly following the one that has been preordained, but for her mother, even this is a step too far. Near the end of A Long Journey Home, a visibly weary Zhang states that she doesn’t “want to talk anymore.” Given the relentlessness of the film’s despairing tone, this sentiment seems easy to understand.
However, in between all the anger, there are moments of tranquility. Slice-of-life conversations cover gentler topics: the seemingly ever-present need to defrost the refrigerator, or the presence of rats in the garage. In one sweet scene, Zhang’s father talks about his newfound love of coding and his misguided belief that it can create a second chance for him in his life. “Dad has to keep busy,” he says grimly, verbalising the feeling of not living up to your own expectations and being faced with the distance between what you turned out as and who you thought you could be. In this scene and others, A Long Journey Home contains a nonchalant form of wisdom, displaying the sorts of car-ride philosophy and heat-of-the-argument insight that it is possible to capture with an always-rolling camera and an editor willing to spend the time filtering through the intimidating volume of material that this durational approach to documentation creates.
Above all, what comes across in the film is the impossibility of reconciling two polar viewpoints and the emotional damage done by not being able to get past mutual differences to find some kind of palatable middle ground. A Long Journey Home is as good a film about the trials and tribulations of ordinary existence as has been made, but also a strong portrait of a divided China, a place so enormous and multitudinous that the ascription of any kind of connective thread or single defining character seems like a futile exercise. “Every generation has its own definition of life and way of living”, Zhang’s mother says during an unexpected moment of composure and clarity. “What we got from our generation is very different to what you will get from yours.”
Daphne Xu's Huahua's Dazzling World and its Myriad Temptations (2022) screened at Cinema du Réel in the International Competition. More information about Daphne Xu can be found here. Wenqian Zhang’s A Long Journey Home (2022) screened at Visions du Réel in the Burning Lights Competition, where it won the top prize. There is no information currently online about Wenqian Zhang. To receive more articles like this, do subscribe to nonlinearities. The writing in this newsletter will always be free-to-read, but donations are very welcome.