The quote that opens the shaggy but friendly new animated feature from Chinese director Liu Jian is instructive. “Living, Wrong, Falling, Triumphing and Recreating from Life” is a passage from James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist in His Youth.” In fact, Leo himself was in art college as a young man in the early 1990s, when and where “Art College” was set 1994″, which is not surprising. The film’s quasi-memoir feel has its charm – it’s always a kick to see animation techniques applied not to extravagant flights but to slices of real, ordinary life – but it’s also its main flaw. In recreating life from life, Leo is quite successful; Another question is whether it turns into a drama. Like its characters, “Art College 1994” gives the impression of having a lot of time on its hands.
Leo’s painting style is full of small pleasures, particularly in the intricate backgrounds, which, as in his last Berlin address, “Have a nice day,” is where the detail lives. Against peeling paint walls and bike-strewn alleyways, the characters are less defined: simple, colorful, two-dimensional outlines that are mainly differentiated by hairstyle and body shape. The fact that these characters are voiced by a distinguished group of Chinese characters – including “Better Days” debutant Zhou Dongyu, Dong Zijian from “Mountains May Depart”, folk-rock singer Ren Qi, internet comedian Babi Jiang, and esteemed directors Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan — admirable, but also something many outside of China won’t realize until the closing credits surprise.
There is a slightly frustrating lack of a single point of view, in a narrative that favors first one, then another to a group of unconnected peers. But in the beginning, it revolves around friends and collaborators Xiaojun (Dong Zijian) and Rabbit (Chizi), two students who, as the film begins, are working on what Rabbit announces is some kind of masterpiece that will win them a major prize. A short discussion then ensued on the optics of accepting or rejecting such prizes, before they came to the conclusion of China Boom that they had to “spoil the prize, take the money”. But before they can put this practical principle into practice, Lin Weiguo (Bai Ke)—a competitive student who flaunts the ultimate status symbol in a blonde, blue-eyed American girlfriend—cuts the cloth. The cycle of revenge for this act gives the film one of a large number of episodic subplots.
The guys hang out frequently with part-time hairdresser and full-time philosopher of art Zhao Youcai (Huang Pu), who is allowed on campus even though he is never accepted despite multiple attempts. In the trio’s periodic conversations, sometimes joined by fellow students who are mostly called for their weight—Skinny Horse, Chubster, etc.—the slalom tone is set, especially by Youcai, who quickly emerges as the standard-bearer for this phase of life, talking about the big game. About art, the experience of revelation after revealing its purpose, but not actually making anything up.
As independent individuals, despite less screen time, the two women are in the men’s orbit a little better. Hao Lili (beautifully voiced by Zhou Dongyu) is a soft-spoken, bespectacled piano student with a hesitant crush on Xiaojun, but also a practical approach to her future that sees her encouraging the attention of a more steadfast if dull suitor. “Sooner or later we all have to marry someone,” she sighs, to the horror of her more worldly friend Gao Hong (MVP Papi Jiang, who delivers a nice dose of down-to-earth wit), an aspiring singer appalled by Lily’s willingness to compromise. But the late exchange between Hong and Xiao Jun, outside the nightclub where she’s now singing, is a subtle sign of how each of Linklater’s slacker characters has, by the end of the film, come to terms with new realities. Part of the process of growing up, after all, is realizing that there isn’t unlimited time to take advantage of romance, rebel against your elders, or establish a career. Sometimes, it may be too late.
For those who tend to see Chinese culture as a fortress impenetrable to outsiders, the sheer connectedness of these aimless young men, with their unthinking self-absorption and tendency to believe that every new idea they have is something entirely new in the world, may be a revelation. Little. Their views are inspired by the traditional Chinese arts they study but also by Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse as well as Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, whose posters adorn bedrooms and billboards alike. But if “Art College 1994” is a wildly recognizable snapshot of the monotonous cadences of struggling, directionless early twenties, it’s also a problem for those among us who will easily identify with it: having lived through it all at once, do we really want to Spending two long hours doing it again?
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