Subversive Blandness: Hongqi Li’s Winter Vacation

I have never really liked Wes Anderson. Vibrant color palettes and an economy of gestures make for movies that are far more enjoyable when seen for the first time, but as with other highly-idiosyncratic directors, you see one flick, you’ve seen them all.

Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki was guilty of this long before Anderson. I loved my first Kaurismaki movie (Ariel), but grew to loathe his style as I slowly made my way through his filmography, to the point where it took me ages to finish his latest offering The Other Side of Hope. It recently dawned on me that the trick to avoid souring on these directors is to watch one of their movies (preferably an early one and a classic) and then never watch anything else made by them again.

On this view, Hongqi Li’s Winter Vacation is a masterpiece of deadpan comedy, but you won’t catch me watching another one of his films any time soon.

His rigorous widescreen HD cinematography transfigures the cold characterless exteriors into mesmerizing if forlorn tableaux and, in his treatment of interior space, reflects a pervading sense of emotional deprivation and existential hollowness. (Sniadecki para. 6)

It’s not an easy movie to like. I found Winter Vacation while absent-mindedly browsing on Mubi, and was amazed at how it managed to be both heavily stylized and kitchen-sink. One character spends most of the movie asleep in bed. While waiting for him to wake up, one of his friends checks his breathing only to clinically remark: “There’s no need to wait any more. Prepare the funeral.”

Winter Vacation does deadpan primarily through its dialogue: minimal, wooden, and to the point. In one scene, the boys in the neighborhood stand around in a circle in an uncanny approximation of a real conversation. Due to a slight misunderstanding, one of them abruptly decides to stop being friends with another boy, to whom he announces his intentions with all the warmth of a police procedural:

Laobao, I think it’s over between you and me. From now on, we’re finished . . . Since we were once friends, let me offer a last piece of advice: You’re a mother fucker indeed.

Why this blandness? Is there something behind it? French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien seems to think so. The notion of the bland in Chinese culture is, after all, a perennial feature in its art and philosophy. It is an element that presupposes infinite subjective leeway and non-fixity:

The blandness of things evokes in us an inner detachment. But this quality is also a virtue, especially in our relations with others, because it guarantees authenticity. (Jullien 24)

Winter Vacation is highly authentic in the sense that it eschews any instant visual gratification. Watching it, we apprehend that “possibility of a positive notion of the bland,” which according to Jullien means “we have entered China: not into its flashiest or most sophisticated realms, but into what is most simple and essential.”

This back-to-basics approach in Winter Vacation can also function as a sly takedown of modern China; it takes that positive quality of blandness and uses it to signal something almost imperceptible:

It’s a political critique that critiques by not critiquing, by refraining from criticism to such a degree that it comes back around as scathing criticism. (Sheu para. 5)

Instead of attempting to stand out through sheer excess like Wes Anderson, it prefers that area of the nondescript where potentiality can thrive — it does by not doing. With its drab and darkly comical portrayal of 21st century alienation, Winter Vacation also manages to hide its subversive message in plain sight.

Sources:

  • Sheu, C J. “Thoughts on Winter Vacation (Han Jia / 寒假 2010).” Review Film Review, Wordpress, 25 June 2020. Web.
  • Sniadecki, J P. “Interviews: Every Day Is a Holiday: Li Hongqi on Winter Vacation.” Cinema Scope. Web.
  • Jullien, François. In Praise of Blandness. Zone Books, 2004. Print.

Ștefan Ionescu Ambrosie: a portfolio. I write about books, movies, comics, music, and Internet culture in general, with just a dash of theory

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