9 November 2005

Peacock (Gu Changwei / China / 2005) OWE, Nov 3, 18:00

 Peacock is the story of the life of a family in the rural Chinese city of Anyang during the fizzing out of the Cultural Revolution. Sensitive, sentimental, compelling and flawlessly realised, Gu Changwei’s first feature film as director is a splendid success. In the young lives of the three siblings of the Wei family, aspirations of brightness, dreams and the resulting desolation and despair are realised in the midst of the confusion, smog and red fervour. An era where the notion of individual was suppressed is illuminated by the honest personal qualities of the characters and the inherent, unchangeable natures by which they live.

The story of the Wei family is simultaneously a story of five individuals and one of millions of families during this era, constant interplay of individual and general augments the sense of the characters’ susceptibility to the regime, and to their intrinsic temperaments. Among their innumerable daily tasks, pressing coal paste into bricks, bottling tomatoes, the fates of the members of the Wei family are played out. The elder brother, mentally retarded from a childhood illness is shuffled between factory jobs. Tempered by his naive enjoyment of shifting frozen carcasses and running sacks of flour back and forth all day, the austere reality of such industry is portrayed. His older sister is not satisfied with her job in a nursery, she sets her sights on a handsome, vacant paratrooper, then on joining the Air Force. Both fail. Subsequently her time washing bottles in a medicine factory is similar ennui for her dreaming, romantic mind. The younger brother falls into the struggle of the world outside of Anyang, a schoolboy disgraced, he is assimilated by smoky-lensed sunglassed, flared-trousered city.

Their parents are resigned and benign, anxious to steer their children in a direction that will not draw societal criticism. Alas, a free thinking, free acting daughter and a compulsive, idiosyncratic son express themselves in serene, fantastic cinematic episodes in Peacock. As the film progresses, their youthful aspirations are left behind, realised, adjusted by reality, readjusted by faith in life. From the mundane and often tragic, radiate a genuine sentimentality, the three siblings are resilient and embrace life’s cruelty and beauty.

Gu Changwei, a cinematographer of great renown, has worked on masterpieces of ‘Fifth Generation’ Chinese film such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum. Poetic, serene sequences throughout the film are testament to two decades directing photography, his credibility as an accomplished director is also established. Many sequences employ static camera work; the characters’ motion and melodious north Henan dialect animates the bleak spaces in Anyang’s twisted grey houses and monstrous factories and the streets cutting through the city. Acting is a ‘simple visual harmony’ for Gu Changwei. The cast of Peacock work naturally and harmoniously, resulting in flawless, convincing screenplay and unaffected performances. Zhang Jinchu plays the lead of the elder sister in a curious blossoming of youth, of unique romance and dream wrapped in warm sadness. Lu Yulai plays the younger brother, Feng Li plays the older brother, they encapsulate the audacity and the eccentric, bestial nature of their respective characters. Several of the cast in Peacock are not professionally trained actors, this adds to the realism of the overall production, and to the vivacity of the characters.

Peacock is about dreams, it is a celebration of life, of the human being. Gu Changwei mellifluously matches memory of a painfully, passionately remembered period with the intimacies of fragile individual relations and endurance. Melancholic sentimentality frames the characters, but does not lend itself to saccharin reminiscence. When his motivation for making a film set twenty years ago was questioned, Gu Changwei discussed the balance and conflict between the individual and the environment, and remarked: “With a compassionate attitude, I want to reawaken people’s memory of that era and to show that we are yet again faced with the same difficulties.”

The peacock, in a snow-covered Anyang is presumed not to display its plumage during the winter months, ‘The peacocks in our city are all fake.’ is ruefully remarked. The alluring display of the peacock’s feathers is the beauty and serenity that the characters aspire to, it is the fleeting, delicate moment when such beauty is realised, and such beauty is realised in Gu Changwei’s film.

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