Do you remember Jia Hongshen?
Okay, so you don't remember Jia Hongshen. Do you remember the 1988 television movie, The Ann Jillian Story, starring Ann Jillian as Ann Jillian in the dramatic, sentimental, highly personal, and empowering story of Ann Jillian's battle against breast cancer? I'd forgotten about it until I read the back cover of writer-director Yang Zhang's Quitting and was stricken with the sinking feeling I would soon be subjected to self-indulgent pap.
Quitting is the true story of Chinese actor Jia Hongshen's four-year struggle with drug addiction, and the diligence of his family in pulling him back from the edge of destruction. It stars Jia Hongshen and his family as Jia Hongshen and his family.
Facts of the Case
It's the early 1990s and Jia Hongshen is an up-and-coming young actor in Chinese cinema, an aspiring pop musician, and a complete John Lennon freak. Caught up in the semi-frenetic nightlife of Beijing, he's soon spending his days feeding a drug habit that's all but destroyed his career. His father, mother, and sister move to the city, into his apartment, in order to be with him while he makes his choice between life and death.
Lo and behold, Quitting is a good movie. Any plot description makes it sound like a crappy movie-of-the-week, a cautionary tale about the horrors of drug addiction, but it transcends all that. For one thing, it largely avoids the histrionics one expects from movies about drug addicts, the tortured weeping and explosive acts of frustrated violence. Jia's performance through much of the film is one part sullen, pouty child, one part walking dead man. His father, Fengshen, is center-stage much of the time, quietly resolute, dedicated to simply being present until his son either comes to his senses or dies. Some of Quitting's best moments are small and quiet, as when father and son, day after day, walk to a city park, sit in the grass and drink beer, side-by-side but rarely speaking a word to one another. Fengshen absorbs his son's embarrassment about their peasant roots, lets it roll off of him—his concerns are too grave to allow himself to get caught up in personal slights. He takes an interest in the Beatles only because his son loves them, and there's a tragicomic grandeur to his attempts to purchase Let It Be at a Chinese record store despite his cluelessness with regard to the British pop band (he tells the clerk he's looking for a tape by a band called "Da Bidus"). At the behest of Hongshen, he squeezes into a pair of tight blue jeans that are neither comfortable nor his style. And we soon learn that Fengshen has a history of alcohol abuse, that drinking beer with his son is a dangerous act for him, but it's also his way of getting close—even if the two have little to say to one another. This is as much a story of the persistence of unconditional parental love as it is drug addiction. Fengshen's approach is not to try and fix his adult son, but to love him steadfastly, quietly, relentlessly, hoping that such love will motivate him to choose life over his addiction.
Yang Zhang allows these subtleties of relationship to play out on screen. He's as patient with his movie as Fengshen is with his son, holding shots and letting the actors' faces and bodies speak as much, if not more, than the words on the page—a good thing since Jia Hongshen's the only professional actor present; the others are better at reacting to him, even when their reactions are minute, than they are at line reads. Yet the film's 112 minutes move along at a good clip. The simplicity of the film's plot is offset by its flashback narrative structure, tossing us back and forth in the years 1992 to 1996. There is a sense that the plasticity of time isn't really necessary, that it's a device driven by narrative functionality not thematic or intellectual necessity. It enables Yang to tell the story quickly and efficiently, which is, I suppose, legitimate enough reason to structure it that way, even if it's not fully integrated into the film's layers of meaning.
What doesn't work is Yang's play-within-a-movie structure. Cognizant, perhaps, of the fine line he was walking between art and manipulative exploitation, Yang goes postmodern by reminding us, at a couple key moments in the film, that we're witnessing artifice. As a couple isolated scenes reach emotional peaks, straying dangerously into melodrama, the camera pulls back from the Jia family apartment to reveal it's a set on a stage and the family is rehearsing a play based on their struggles with Hongshen's addiction. These pull-back-the-curtain moments are so few and far between they come across as forced, pretentious, a desperate plea to be taken seriously as art. Luckily, they're such a small part of the whole, they don't ruin the experience.
The film is presented on DVD in a decent little 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that looks very much like film, with a natural representation of colors and a thin patina of grain. I suppose it would be a disappointment if this were a big-budget Hollywood production only two years old, but it's pleasant, even vibrant, considering it's a low-budget Chinese film. The 5.1 surround track, in Mandarin Chinese, is mostly front-heavy, though the film's score is spread throughout the soundstage. There are even a couple scenes where the noises of Beijing traffic and a rain storm sweep from rear to front.
Extras are limited to trailers for Quitting as well as Beijing Bicycle and Yang Zhang's other film, Shower, each of which is available on DVD from Columbia TriStar's Sony Pictures Classics line of foreign films.
Quitting is a pleasant surprise, a potential disaster handled deftly and with great delicacy by both Yang Zhang and Jia Hongshen.
Whatever its other charms, the film is worth viewing for the curiosity of seeing what happens to the lyrics of the Beatles' "Let It Be" when translated into Chinese and then back into English: as Jia Hongshen recites the words to his father as a sort of incantation, they mysteriously become "Take It Naturally." Never the sharpest knife in the drawer, it wasn't until I watched the film a second time I realized he was quoting the Beatles' swan song.
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