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Set in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, the film focuses on a group of amateur theatre troupe performers whose fate mirrors that of the general population in China as massive socio-economic changes sweep across the mainland. The film commences in 1979 with the troupe performing numbers idolizing Mao Zedong, ending in the '80s when the shows reflect the strong Western influences pervading China, covering a decade in which China saw tremendous changes. Written by
L.H. Wong <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The essence of the story is simple, though with multi-layered implications.
For the essence, the dialogue says it all : "Where is outer-Mongolia (the name used by the Chinese for Mongolia)?" "North of inner-Mongolia (a province of China)." "Which country lies north to the outer-Mongolia?" "Russia." "Still north?" "The ocean." "What is beyond that?" "Fenyang, your home town." . The essence is "nowhereness".
The members of the state-owned vaudeville group were supposed to be the cultural elites of the town, with most of the peasants illiterate, intellectually bleak, and with no appreciation for art. They could perform ballet, opera, various instruments, and flamenco. But they were tied to the peasants, for they were the tools for the government to please and entertain the grassroots of its support. They had all the longing for a brave new life that would suit their values, ideologies, and aesthetics, but they did not know how to act. Though they were given the eye for a better life, they were deprived of the chance to live it. They still lived as the peasants, eking out a meager living. Both the inaction on their behalf and the innate determinant posed by the social reality for their inaction constitutes the "nowhereness" for the semi-intellectuals.
All they ever had was a moment of pleasure and inspiration by art and an everlasting bitterness and backbreaking excruciation imposed by the actual living that goes nowhere and has no end.
The life of the masses is another layer of the "nowhereness". It is no doubt that the change in China during the '80s were profound. The Big Brother abandoned the central planning economy along with the ideology that acted as the appurtenance. A new kind of exploitation took the place of the old one, and the peasants (the masses) were still nowhere to be the beneficiaries. The illusory glory of contributing to the nation in the totalitarian state made way for the cheap and coarse consumer products in the national capitalism. The difference between the masses and the elite is that the masses never knows and never has the urge to know the truth. They were already consumed and wasted by the effort to sustain their mere existence. Leisure and education are never on their side. In the new world, they gained the return of a minute scrap from the spoils of the exploitation of their own sweat and blood, and lost the meaning of life with the peace of mind. They no longer has a direction or a cause. It is an every-man-for-himself scenario let loose in a country with 1.3 billion people. "Nowhereness" seems to be a result very much acceptable.
The last layer of the "nowhereness" is the nowhereness of the nation as a whole. The story of the Fenyang Town goes the same for the Chinese nation. The Jeffersonian-like ideal of the ancient empire was but yesterday's dream. The current China, dated back to mid-19th century, through its search for power, independence, and its own identity, has got used to the nation-wide mobilization, and consequently, with a constant change of plan, accidentally and successfully obliterated its own culture and identity. What is left is but the dregs of old memory and folklore. The nation's elite today could only satiate their quest for meaning with the ideas of the Western world that their forefathers labelled as barbarism one century and a half ago. As a culture entity, China is already lost.
A nation has thus lost itself.
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