Nicely photographed, festival-friendly Chinese drama
"Bliss" (Fu Sheng - lit.: Floating Lives) is the story of two disenchanted men, brought together by one's divorced mother and the other's widowed father, in Chongqing city in China.
The divorced woman, Xiue, is the mother of Lei, who has recently emerged from prison for a crime that remains unclear for most of the film. With his friend / boss still behind bars, Lei wanders the streets aimlessly, not wishing to be stuck in a small apartment with his fussing mother or her new husband, Lao Li.
Lao Li is an ex-policeman, and father of taxi-driver Jian-jun. He has just received a parcel containing the ashes of someone loved and long-lost, which a painful wound for him and his son. He manages to get a job for Lei working as on operator on the city's trans-Jialing River cable car. It is here that Lei meets Qian Xue, and they begin an uneasy relationship of sorts.
Meanwhile, Jian-jun's wife Xiao-hong (or just Hong) has conflicting loyalties with her co-workers, managers, friends and even her husband after the factory where she works is closed down and demolished.
The drama slowly, almost imperceptibly unfolds under the harsh, foggy skies of Chongqing, with its flat grey tenement buildings, its abandoned construction sites and its disenchanted factory workers, who all seem to live, work, copulate and die with benign fatalism.
Is "Bliss", the international title, ironic then? Perhaps. Or perhaps it indicates the relative happiness of people who are almost without hope finding respite or closure. Perhaps it refers to the wilful ignorance in which many of the characters live.
I tend to be suspicious of beautifully photographed, but rather depressing social commentary films. In fact, I wouldn't have picked this one up had it not had Fruit Chan's name attached to it (he is a producer). I stayed with the film, however, and reasonably enjoyed it. It has an impressionistic feel because of the somewhat isolated camera aspect of many shots and the effect of the narrative: many scenes and actions of characters are apparently pointless but are justified later. This leaves us continually trying to guess their motivations, which keeps us engaged and adds to the rather patchwork feel of the film as a whole. This is a nice effect, but of course it is lost on second viewing. This does, however, lead me to suspect that it is a good, but not a great film, despite winning prizes from several international film festivals.
Ultimately, if it were stripped of its narrative effects we would be left with a fairly uncomplicated story about five people, whom we mostly don't get to know - or care - that much about. The city is captured on film expertly and with great aesthetic appeal - almost too great in fact as at times we are so busy admiring the National Geographic-esquire squalor that we miss the vague, subtle actions of the characters. The actors do a fine job, however, and if you are at all interested in modern China or the privation of many of the people who live in its polluted cities, then this 90 minute film is by no means a waste of time.
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