Filming a half dozen (fictional) school-age kids, two toddlers, and a smattering of adults during the last days of a winter vacation in a collapsing rural town, [director] Li [Hongqi] not only positions each figure in stylized poses (mostly mirroring the way kids stand—slouched, hands in pockets), but distills conversation into an endless series of pauses and dry recitations. Among other things, in Li’s hands, duration becomes a comedic tool, the director milking the simple length of time it takes characters to do nothing for aching laughter. But also, as in a late shot where a group of kids get up one by one from a makeshift outdoor lounge, leaving the beat-up furniture to sit vacated in the snow, time’s passing renders life’s banality piercingly sad.
Basically, in Li’s world, existence is a series of absurdist situations, a state of being reinforced by the endless repetition of events. One boy gets continually mugged by a bully, the familiarity of the act having been codified into a sort of comic ritual between the two. A much younger kid annoys his grandfather with his perpetual questioning only to be warned off with the same refrain concerning an impending “kick in the butt.” Another young man tries to convince his girlfriend not to dump him (shot amid decaying architecture, the scene recalls a similar exchange in Jia’s Platform). Later we learn that the couple’s life is defined by a cycle of breakups and restarts and the boy’s friends expect the pair to marry. Mostly Li’s kids appear vaguely aware of the uselessness of their lives. “One day after another, it seems life never ends,” says one philosophically inclined boy.
J. P. Shiadecki for Cinemascope:
If Chinese filmmaker, poet, and novelist Li Hongqi’s two previous films, So Much Rice (2005) and Routine Holiday (2008), did yet not place him alongside the much less funny Michael Haneke among the top figures of misanthropic cinema, then his third and most accomplished feature, Winter Vacation, has guaranteed his membership for life. And the hearty string of awards and recognition the film has been receiving since its premiere this August at Locarno—from a Golden Leopard to the Red Chameleon Award at the fourth Cinema Digital Seoul Festival—now positions Li at the forefront of independent Chinese cinema.
In Winter Vacation, Li turns another national holiday on its head and reveals an absurd, Kafka-esque world full of bullying and boredom, devoid of any warmth, human understanding, or meaningful purpose. With the concentrated power of late Beckett, the film very slowly unfolds against the wintery backdrop of a dull town in Inner Mongolia during Spring Festival—a two-week holiday so important for Chinese families that migrant workers go to great lengths to cross the country to be with loved ones.
Shiadecki’s profile of Li leads into an interview with the hilariously downbeat director. Some highlights (lowlights?) of Li’s comically unmitigated miserablism:
(1) “I see every filmmaking experience as a lesson in failure.”
(2) “I don’t use humour to bring a bit of happiness into the lives of others. My humour is because I am deeply depressed. I don’t think there is anything in this world to make people laugh; it is completely immersed in pessimism and desperation, and nothing seems to be of any use.”
(3) “[O]ur world is more and more hopeless, people are more and more hopeless, and relations between people are more and more hopeless.”
(4) “I don’t intentionally express the political dynamics of China because politics isn’t this world’s fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is humanity.”
Li looking very underwhlemed by his Locarno Film Festival award.
In that same Cinemascope interview, Li also discusses his process:
In the actual production process, my way of directing the actors is also rigorous, strict, and demanding. The actors have to follow the script closely—not one word can be wrong. Their movements are not their own; they must fall within the movements I stipulate. This includes their facial expressions as well. But I don’t make any excessive demands, for example, asking them to perform difficult actions—to cry with great emotion, to laugh in an exaggerated way, or tell them that I need them to give me more sorrow or more joy in their eyes. You only need to have eyes, that’s all. If I tell you to look in that direction, you only need to look in that direction, and when the time comes for you to shift your eyes to another position, you just need to shift them. I am clear and concrete with every direction, and the actors never have any difficulty in performing them. But I can be very strict, and I don’t give them any kind of freedom. There is no room for freedom to come into play, and I don’t give myself any room either.
[B]elieve me when I say that, with Winter Vacation, Hongqi Li has crafted the most Scandinavian Chinese film ever. A bold claim, yes. Also true…. Obviously, making tedium appealing is quite an achievement, something the Scandinavian deadpan mafia are quite adept at, and now Hongqi Li, on only his third film seems to be a master too. I assume they’d welcome him into the club, but would actually probably just look at him, shrug and then go back to staring at the wall. God bless them.
Chris Knipp makes the same comparisons, but much less favorably:
Hongqi Li, who has been a hit at the Locarno festival, reminds me of the ultra-dry Swedish director Roy Andersson, but without the production values, the variety of settings and characters, or the momentum. As with Andersson’s You the Living, which was in the Rome festival in 2007, the scenes are a series of vignettes with no strong connecting storyline. (Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki are also kindred spirits.) Winter Vacation focuses on a group of teenage boys in a generic nowhere land of modern China–it’s Inner Mongolia, but the director deliberately chose shots that could be almost anywhere–who are frozen in boredom and inertia so stylized it is, occasionally, quite funny. But this is Beckett (one can’t help thinking of him too) without the wit or eloquence.
Hongqi Li’s filmmaking has been called “mesmerizing,” “scorchingly funny” and “corrosively subversive.” I did not see anyone scorched from the funny in my audience, or corroded by subversion. As for mesmerizing, yes. The man next to me fell asleep for some time. Then he left, saying this director has a stunning visual sense. That’s true. There was something about the arrangement of figures and objects in the long horizontal frames that was striking and original. Sometimes the color or the light verge, ironically, on the sublime. Of course Hongqi Li has something. Has not Locarno said so? There is another kind of mesmerizing: the kind that comes from watching objects move very slowly in front of one’s eyes. It’s a kind of hypnosis, and you can do it to a chicken. But this kind of film is a tough watch. It’s not the way I want to spend a lot of my time, even though I know that’s just the very kind of thing that was said when Beckett’s Waiting for Godot first appeared.