Friday, 1 September 2006

Little Red Flowers 看上去很美 (2006)

Irresistible child actors steal show!

In a previous life, respected director Wang Yuan made unflinching movies on social issues like Mama (a mother caring for her mentally-challenged son), Seventeen Years (a girl is released from prison after serving 17 years for killing her stepsister), and East Palace, West Palace (a gay writer facing sanctions from state authorities). We miss the Wang Yuan who had the keen eye of a sociologist and a documentarian. We dread the day where he follows up Little Red Flowers with a martial arts epic, in a lemming-like move that follows the double career suicides of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who have proved in the past year their incapability to churn out decent movies on a big budget. You don’t have to wait for that martial arts epic to witness the artistic fall of Wang Yuan, though – you can see his degradation in this misguided film.

Little red flowers are what the staff at a 1950s kindergarten boarding school give out to nice children who show they can dress themselves, tie their shoelaces, poop in the morning at the communal latrines, obey their teachers, and treat their fellow boarders well. Little red flowers are both little shiny stickers stuck on a whiteboard that chart the performance of each little tyke for all to see, as well as the little crepe flowers that the teachers give out to the students. Sort of like how you were rewarded with golden stars in kindergarten and lower primary school for work well done. Yet from this innocuous measure comes a tale by the director on the struggle between individualism and conformity, the little people against authority figures, and so on.

With minimal dialogue, Wang Yuan establishes Dong Bowen as the latest addition to the boarding school for tiny tots. When you first see him, the crying child is literally dragged by his pilot father and deposited to the care of the ugly minders at the kindergarten. It’s clear you’re meant to take the side of the tyke. Over the next 90 minutes, you will learn through a series of incidents that

1. Conformity is the enemy of individualism. And in case you didn’t notice, conformity is evil!
2. Little children, when left to themselves, can invent their own games. The games and exercises teachers organise in school for the mass participation of kids are evil because they encourage conformity.
3. The more disciplined the regime, the harsher the rebellion.

There are several problems with this line of reasoning, problems that make Wang Yuan’s final social film simplistic and naïve, falling short of the meticulous compositions of his entire oeuvre. Perhaps Wang Yuan should have applied the Socratic method on himself, posing questions such as:

Is rewarding young children to reinforce positive behaviour always wrong? (Parenting in early childhood would be impossible if you say yes)
How else should you potty-train 80 young kids?
Is all structured learning and group playing always wrong? (We might as well abolish school and close down all the Montessori playschools as well)

For a fair comparison, one would have to look at how accounts and movies about how children grew up in kibbutzim (for example, The Children’s House). Or just read Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window for a more subtle and nuanced take on conformity, individuality, and creativity in a playschool environment. And then one might come to the conclusion that Wang Yuan is lashing out at the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The problem with Little Red Flowers is it’s not so much that the rewarding is bad, but that the teachers begin to isolate the non-performing children and punish them through by encouraging their classmates to shun them. That happens only in the second act, and is developed for all of 5 minutes, and feels tacked on as an afterthought to the 3 central premises of the movie. If the real evil in the kindergarten isn’t the little red flowers, but something else entirely, why the obsession with the little red flowers? It is the mystifying refusal to delve into the subtleties and nuances of the topic at hand that makes the message behind Wang Yuan’s film seem unsophisticated, despite its gorgeous camerawork.

The saving grace, or perhaps the most obvious sign of this film’s failings, is the chockfull of awwwwwww moments where little tykes do their cute little tyke things with their cute little tyke antics, like running around without clothes on, urinating on snow, and playing doctor/patient. This is the sole factor that will either save or break the movie for audience, given its relatively thin plot and thematic development.

In the end, Little Red Flowers feels like a short film that got padded into a feature length movie, with a weak second act and an even weaker ending that is atypical of Chinese cinema. It feels like the first 1/3 of a movie about a fictional boy who grows up during the Cultural Revolution and matures as an adult during the Tiananmen Massacre. Now, that movie would be a must-watch.

First published at incinemas on 5 October 2006

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