Kaiju Shakedown: Huang Jianxin
On August 9 and 11, the British Film Institute will screen The Black Cannon Incident, a 1985 work by director Huang Jianxin that’s part of the traveling Century of Chinese Cinema retrospective that previously screened, in slightly altered form, in Toronto. Huang was part of China’s famous Fifth Generation, alongside directors like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. These and other filmmakers revolutionized China’s film industry, bringing it international acclaim and numerous awards. But while Zhang, Chen, and Tian still premiere their movies at Berlin and Cannes, Huang is largely forgotten. The lavish book which accompanies the BFI retrospective contains an entire chapter on the Fifth Generation, but Huang receives a mere 71 words. This neglect isn’t solely the BFI’s problem; it’s pervasive. Crawl around the Internet and the only extensive English-language write-ups you’ll find on him are a series of reviews written in 2009 by Matthew Lee over on the fan site Twitch Film.
The Black Cannon Incident
Why does everyone ignore Huang? Because he’s a comedian.
The Fifth Generation made movies about how crappy it was to be a woman in China (Raise the Red Lantern), how dismal it was to be Tibetan in China (The Horse Thief), and how awful it was to be gay in China (Farewell My Concubine), but Huang made movies about missing marriage certificates (The Marriage Certificate), androids that attend boring meetings on behalf of party functionaries (Dislocation), and office politics (Back to Back, Face to Face). Comedy never gets the same respect as politically charged drama, but Huang’s movies were the only Fifth Generation films brave enough to depict contemporary China.* While the rest of the Fifth Generation were being heralded for their courage, no one was pointing out the fact that their movies were largely set in the past, mostly in Republican, pre-Communist China, or far out in remote provinces among ethnic minorities. Huang wasn’t having it. He set his movies in Shanghai, Xi’an, and other major cities, and grounded them firmly in the present day.
Huang, like the majority of the Fifth Generation, came out of the regional Xi’an film studio during the leadership of Wu Tianming. After university, Huang worked as a script supervisor, editor, and assistant director before attending the prestigious Beijing Film Academy and becoming a director. His first movie was The Black Cannon Incident and it set Chinese film circles on fire. A German translator at a mining company complains in a telegram that a chess set he bought is missing a piece, the black cannon. Suddenly, he’s removed from his job because the local party chief is convinced that this is some kind of code. Things unravel further when the translator who replaces him turns out to be incompetent, and the German company they’re working with has to be kept in the dark about what’s going on. After his name is finally cleared, the translator is informed that he should thank the party for going to such efforts to clear his reputation (which they besmirched in the first place). The last line of the movie comes from the weary translator: “I’m not going to play chess anymore.”
The Black Cannon Incident
Dry as the desert, this was a bureaucratic farce of a type that hadn’t been seen in China for decades (at least not since 1936’s A Night of Madness), and it became a huge success, winning star Liu Zifeng a Golden Rooster Award for “Best Actor.” Two conferences to discuss Black Cannon were organized in January 1986, one by the editors of Film Art and one by the China Art Research Center, but critics couldn’t embrace how radical the movie was. Huang’s satire was too barbed, so they pretended they didn’t get it. One claimed Huang was making fun of the timeless foibles of human nature that clearly predated the glorious Communist party, while another claimed that the movie called for a “modernization of self.” Even Huang bent over backwards to appear that he was not criticizing the government or the party but instead talking about humanity in general. Spoiler alert: he was criticizing the government and the party.
Huang’s next movie, Dislocation (86), was a sequel in which the disgraced translator invents a robot double to attend boring meetings for him, only to find that it demands independence. That was followed by Samsara (88), an artsy ramble about the son of a high-ranking party official who drifts aimlessly through a life of petty crime, squandering his advantages just like the pampered children of party members who are his peers. A few months later, the Tiananmen Square massacre took place, and film culture, which seemed to be thawing, got chilly again. Huang was in Australia when the June 4 incident took place, so he couldn’t be accused of participating, but whether it was a cultural crackdown, or whether he was tarred by association after Wu Tianming fled to the United States, Huang got scrubbed from official history, not even invited to participate in a Chinese retrospective of the 20 most important movies of the ’80s. He wouldn’t make another movie until 1992.
Back to Back, Face to Face
But when he came back, it was with a vengeance. Stand Up, Don’t Bend Over (92) was the first of three savage modern social satires from Huang. This one took place in an apartment building as a writer rubs shoulders with the motley cast of characters around him, who range from uptight Party apparatchiks to small-time businessmen whose capitalist ventures are greased with bribes. Next came Back to Back, Face to Face (94), Haung’s greatest film. At its heart is his funniest creation, Wang Shuangli, a small-time official in a remote city who has been acting director of the cultural center for three years. Everyone expects he’ll be named the permanent director, but when an outsider is appointed to “his” position, he fights back with his mastery of bureaucracy fu. Doing everything from sabotaging opinion polls, to suggesting poisoned ideas to his “boss,” to investigating petty cash gone missing, Wang is a monster, but a hilarious one, and as his paperwork war spirals out of control the movie expands to paint the portrait of a Communist Party that is petty, ignorant, venal, and deeply corrupt.
The third in this series, Signal Left, Turn Right (95) was about a state-run driving school administered by a brainwashed true believer who spends his time raging against Japan’s crimes against China. The easygoing narrative outlines the school’s breathtaking array of scams that leads three disparate students (a bribe-hungry journalist, a junkie, and a nouveau riche sleazebag) to team up in order to pass the final driving test. Huang’s next movie, Surveillance (97), was co-directed by Yang Yazhou, and it’s basically Waiting for Godot meets Stakeout. In the early 2000s Huang tempered his social critiques with a kinder and gentler view of human nature, turning in movies like Xi’an’s Finest (00), about city cops, and The Marriage Certificate (01), about a couple caught in limbo when they can’t find their titular paperwork. In 2005 he released Gimme Kudos, a quiet, but poignant movie about a man who falsely claims to have stopped a rape and demands that a local newspaper publicly praise him for his deed.
Founding of a Republic
After that, not much more is heard from Huang until he surfaces as one of the heads of production at the state-owned, massively wealthy China Film Group. It’s a breathtaking leap and one I can’t find an explanation for. In 2009 he co-directed the massive propaganda movie Founding of a Republic with Han Sanping, the powerful head of China Film Group. In 2011, the two men co-directed another massive propaganda movie, The Founding of a Party. The two movies co-starred everyone who wanted to suck up to the Chinese government, from Andy Lau, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li, to Jackie Chan, John Woo, and Chow Yun-fat. They were massively profitable exercises in self-satisfaction and score-settling, scrubbing official history clean of problematic elements, and burnishing the image of the party on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
It’s not a little ironic that the only Fifth Generation director who boldly and directly satirized the moribund, bureaucratic, out-of-touch Communist party now makes his living hosting dinners and playing politics in the same moribund, bureaucratic, out-of-touch Communist party departments that he once ridiculed. Who knows what happened? Maybe he got sick of fighting? Maybe he decided that he wanted to make money? Maybe he stopped believing in his former films? Whatever it was, he leaves behind a neglected legacy of deeply funny, very human movies that sometimes sound like laughter, and that sometimes sound like a scream of frustration from the heart of a totalitarian state.
* A very knowledgeable reader (see comments below) weighs in to take issue with this statement, and they're not wrong. It's always nice to get educated! But I would argue that the main point—that Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, et al. got praised for criticizing the government, whereas only Huang had the guts to critique the government through films with contemporary urban settings—still holds. Also, someone should program a film festival called “Embarrassing Movies of the Fifth Generation”: Code-Name Cougar and Rock n’Roll Kids would both have prominent spots.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
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From Vegas to Macau 1
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