A Film Without the Flash

Gu Changwei's `Peacock' Doesn't Need Gimmicks -- or Kung Fu




GU CHANGWEI'S directorial debut, "Peacock," has none of the flash or gimmicks of China's recent blockbusters. There are no crouching tigers or hidden dragons, no kung fu hustle. This may help explain why the script for Peacock, written by Henan writer Li Qiang, the author of a novel by the same name, gathered dust in directors' offices for some seven years without any takers. Several directors read it, but were ultimately afraid that such a simple story would flop at the box office. The thoughtful Mr. Gu, however, immediately recognized the script's potential and succeeded in turning it into one of the best Chinese films of recent years. Peacock hits Chinese cinemas Friday, the same day that it will be screened at the Berlin Film Festival. But limited screenings in Beijing have already sparked emotional memories, by showcasing the collective suffering of the first three decades of Communist rule. 

Many Chinese -- even those now living in Beijing's gleaming high-rise complexes -- have no trouble seeing themselves in the film. A typical comment by those who viewed the film is "that's my story," or "that's the story of my parents." 

Mr. Gu calls his film "a subtle investigation into the human condition" during a period of wrenching change. Peacock is the story of an ordinary family struggling to get ahead as China shifts from the post-Cultural Revolution period to the early days of reform. Chinese society is slowly opening up, offering the first glimmers of hope to the people who have survived the previous years of trauma. The artistic two-hour film -- shot in a small city in Henan province in the local dialect -- moves slowly but forcefully, with long camera shots and short but poignant dialogues. Mr. Gu's cinematography beautifully captures the blues and grays of urban life. 

While "Peacock" spotlights a highly politicized period of modern history, at first glance politics is curiously absent from the movie. The characters mouth no political slogans, there are no Chairman Mao portraits hanging anywhere, no political slogans splashed across the walls. There's not a red armband to be found. The only hint of politics appears as the movie opens and we hear the faint sound of a marching crowd shouting in the distance. But the sad predicament of the family shows that politics is always there, hidden between the frames of the film. 

Peacock unfolds in three segments as the story of each of the three children is separately told. We first meet Jiejie, or elder sister, a precocious woman in her early 20s. Then comes Gege, or elder brother, who is around 24, obese and slightly retarded. Last is Didi, or younger brother, an introverted high-school student. Each segment begins with the same scene of the family sitting on small stools eating dinner on the public balcony of their dusty apartment building. 

Peacock is really the story of Jiejie, masterfully played by Zhang Jingchu, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy. Ms. Zhang, for whom Peacock is her first film, is already on her way to becoming a superstar. Ms. Zhang dominates the movie with her natural portrayal of the frustrated Jiejie, a young woman who is part daydreamer, part romantic, and ultimately a realist, as all Chinese had to be in those days. 

Anyone who grew up in pre-reform China can sympathize with Jiejie's predicament. She is a trapped in a sad reality that she does not know how to escape. Like her two brothers, she wants more out of life, but she is powerless to do anything. And China in the late 1970s did not offer many options. 

She gets fired from her job in a nursery school, and then ends up washing bottles in a dingy factory. But what she lacks in ability, she makes up for in boldness. Early in the movie we see her putting her laundry aside on the roof to lie down and stare up at the sky as Air Force planes roar overhead, spitting out People's Liberation Army paratroopers. Jiejie rides her bicycle out to a field as paratroopers continue to float to the ground, managing to get caught in the chute of a handsome PLA soldier. The impressionable woman then tries to enlist in the army as a paratrooper -- an attempt to escape her family and dead-end life -- but she fails the physical examination.

One poignant scene shows her riding down the street with a billowing, homemade parachute tied to the back of her bicycle. As her bicycle races forward, she stretches her two hands into the air, one of the few times we see her smiling and carefree in the movie. The fun ends quickly, however, when her mother sees the spectacle and chases down the street trying to grab the wind-filled, swaying parachute. Mother, daughter, bicycle and parachute come crashing to the ground.

In the end, Jiejie offers her one advantage -- her beauty -- to an older, homely-looking man in exchange for a better job. Jiejie boldly proposes marriage to the shocked man, who nervously asks if they aren't being a bit hasty. She replies that's there no reason to wait. "I'm not going to get any better, and you're not going to get any worse," she says matter-of-factly. Her marriage lands her a new job, but not one that appears to be much better than her old one. The next two segments show her brothers going through a similar process, before they too eventually consign themselves to their own sad fates. 

Probably China's finest cinematographer, Mr. Gu has shot films such as "Red Sorghum," "Judou," "Farewell My Concubine," "King of Children" and "In the Heat of the Sun," working with the best of the big-name directors such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Jiang Wen. He spent several years in Hollywood gaining more experience working as a cinematographer on American films. For years, Mr. Gu yearned to try his hand at directing, but was waiting for the right script.

"Peacock" turned out to be well worth the wait. The movie succeeds because of its simple but bittersweet cinematography, excellent performances by a cast of new young actors, and its ability to capture the grim realities of China's recent past. 


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney