The Byron Bay Film Festival has now established itself as one of the major cultural events on the north coast and, under the guidance of J’aimee Skippon-Volke, its founder and tireless organiser, the quality of entries, from both home and abroad, has gone stellar. Screening today at 5pm is a slow-burning and confronting Chinese movie by writer/director Ma Xiang that will make you laugh at the most unexpected moments while it subtly leads you to a concluding scene that is nothing short of apocalyptic.
After an opening sequence involving the ultimate in road rage, the story is set entirely within a dorm shared by four college students – all young blokes. It is New Years Eve and one of them is celebrating his birthday. But there is little cheer in the room, for three of the guys live in abject submission to the bullying fourth member of the group, Wang. While he is out, his dorm-mates indulge in a prolonged bitch-session, boasting of how they will stand up to him and acting out their intentions with an old door-to-door salesman whom they have invited in. During their heavy drinking, the mood spirals into darkness and, with the salesman as passive observer, the boys’ actions grow more hysterical. The acting is unlike what we have become accustomed to in Western cinema, but once you have adjusted to its at times frenetic tone you can’t help but be drawn into the seething acrimony and pent-up resentments. And the humour is as abrasive as the language – a gag built on the fact that Wang steals the others’ toilet paper is quite shockingly funny. Something must give, but what? And what part will the old salesman play in the resolution?
The most obvious ‘reading’ of the film is that Xiang is critiquing the new China, with its pampered princes of the bourgeoisie expecting the world to be laid before them on a platter while abandoning the revered values of the Middle Kingdom, but it is fantastically weird. Try to catch it.