Review and Interview: Dasheng Zheng’s ‘Bangzi Melody’

During an Q&A for Dasheng Zheng’s funny and deeply concerned film about a rural community during the early 1980’s, an audience member asks if the film did well in China. The director sorrily negates the question. There is a palpable sense of urgency when he talks about his project, which has went under the festival radar of many critics and thus lost any chance to be put into a bigger circles of discussion. Later I speak to him outside, he draws on a cigarette and blows the smoke into the starry sky above. I ask him, who he’d like to see the film.

“For a young generation in China…they don’t know what happened before. They don’t know enough. And they are too detached from these topics, there are too many distractions. If we don’t know enough, we don’t have the opportunity to think. First we need to know, then we might have an opportunity to think it over. For the future.”

In the tradition of many filmmakers, Zheng is raging against the cold threat of history falling into oblivion.

“I’m from the city […] I didn’t really know what happened to ordinary Chinese people then. This is why I wanted to make this movie. I tried my best to understand.”

Drawn from the material of three short stories by Jia Dashan, Bangzi Melody tells the story of a pending challenge to the peanut farmers of a small village in the North-East of China. They coincidentally find out that a land reform will take place and that they are to receive political guests very soon. Until then, their task is to rehearse and perform a classic, pre-revolutionary opera for the cadres, supposedly a sign for reinvigoration after decades of systematic oppression during the cultural revolution.

“The early 1980’s were a very critical time. So many changes have happened […] China has been reformed very fast, maybe too fast. And all of these changes start at that time.”

As the days go by and the event draws closer, it turns out that the biggest obstacle is not in the rehearsal, which proves to be difficult in its own right, but in a sole villager, who continually interrupts the procedures of pretending. “Mad Kui” is a mentally ill, peanut-obsessed ex-hero, who lives on patch of land that is of high interest to the villagers. He becomes front and center of this story, as the farmers are torn between finally getting coming to terms with him as a traumatized member of their community and sending him to a psychiatric institution, that he may never return from.

In beautiful, digital black-and-white compositions, which service a feeling of hermeticism in this lively, yet remote place, we are introduced to a relatively small cast of characters. Stories about villages often sprawl into vignetted, intersecting character studies, but Zheng intentionally focuses on the straightforward main narrative. This doesn’t mean that the film lacks smaller moments, it’s just that they exist to advance the relatively tight base premise, which these specific characters all play a emphasised role in, and are thus scarce. Most of the villagers are played by extras, all non-professional, which also applies to the leads, a fact especially impressive in face of the intense and engaging performances on display.

“In this certain project, I didn’t believe that any professional actors could truly play farmers. It’s not about make-up, it’s not about costumes, no— the gestures, the subconscious expressions would be too effortfully performed by a film star. I wanted a very authentic image of village life.”

Working with non-professional actors is a difficult process, in this case, the decision paid off: There is seemingly no gap between the people on-screen and their environment. Zhibing Li in particular delivers a difficult performance as “Mad” and pulls off a narrow edge between crazy caricature and harrowing brokenness. His character seems to represent some sort of trauma lingering in that community – ever-present, but never confronted and therefore worsening and being passed on in the performative society of the cultural revolution. Zheng deconstructs the trope of the “mad” character by peeling back narrative layers, until the character seems like a logical consequence of his experiences. He tells that past history in visually audacious flashbacks, who are also shot in black & white but reworked with the insertion of very specific color accents of green and red.

“There is a very personal reason to me to deal with green and red in this film, because when I was very young, in the 1970’s, I was only four or five years old, the only colour I can remember now, was the green of the military uniforms and the party slogans in red. […] and visually I needed to make the main part and the flashbacks different.”

While the flashbacks are not always inserted in the most elegant manner and sometimes miss dramatic timing, they are exquisite in crass and memorable imagery. Depicting past trauma in flashbacks is a common cinematic trope and here it feels eerie, detached and startling in all the right ways. They serve as the first time the story starts to unravel from its rather chaotic and often comedic inception during the first act. Trauma invades the merry and messy rehearsals and eventually dumbfounds the characters. The humor is still inherent to the film and the tonal balance manages to avoid missteps, but the dramatic gets more severe towards the third act. As the story between “Mad” and the villagers concludes, so does the film. The resolution comes off as feeling a bit premature and misses perhaps a last climax, but the ending is powerful nonetheless. The opera turns out to be a mere distraction for what Zheng’s story really is about.

“In China we don’t talk much about…then. Actually that’s why I wanted to make this movie, I don’t think it’s right to pretend nothing has happened. I don’t think it’s right to ignore it.”

Ignorance as violence. When asked, Zheng admits he doesn’t really like the word metaphor:

“As a director, to me, a story is just a story. I just try my best to describe, to present.”

Chinese cinema often has to restrain to describing to get through censorship. But describing history, unavoidably points towards the future. With Bangzi Melody, Dasheng Zheng comes out during the right time to reclaim forgotten history. He might not have been successful at the box office, but the film is made and makes its point nonetheless. One should seek it out, if possible.

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