Guest contributor Nathaniel Sexton explores ways in which Chinese filmmaker Xie Fei plays with and disrupts our ideas of audience in Black Snow. [Warning: contains spoilers.]
“Above all, the Chinese artist never acts as if there were a
fourth wall besides the three surrounding him. He expresses
his awareness of being watched. This immediately removes
one of the European stage’s characteristic illusions. The
audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen
spectator at an event which is really taking place.”
— Bertolt Brecht,
“Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,”
from Schriften zum Theater, 1957
Xie Fei’s 1990 film Black Snow opens with a steadicam shot of its protagonist Li Huiquan (played by actor later turned director Jiang Wen) emerging from a blackened subway terminal. At first indistinguishable from the darkness of the subway, Li is suddenly silhouetted by the grey light of Beijing. He rises up a flight of stairs, breaking out into the air above. We can see our actor. He is playing someone who has just been released from jail. A dark heavy coat, a duffle bag, gloves and a hat—Beijing is cold and unwelcoming to a free man.
We follow Li as he marches through narrow alleys, sharply turning corners as if a soldier in training. But, he’s not a soldier. He’s a drunk, a criminal, a semi-literate brawler deprived of a formal education, just released from the labor camp into a China unrecognizable to his youth. He no longer has any family or friends upon which he can depend, no one to assist in his reintegration. His only connections are those leftover from a criminal past. As he walks on the camera follows behind him; we follow behind him, wondering where it is he may be headed.
Like many art films before it, and still more after, Black Snow is interested in a lone man, dispossessed from society, either unwilling or unable to re-socialize. One could figure it as merely a social problem film, or just another outsider lament. However, this would be a mistake. What makes Xie Fei’s film so successful is not how it exemplifies the tropes of this sort of art film, not even the ways in which it subverts them through its cultural specificity. What makes Black Snow stand out is the way in which it includes its audience in the problems of its central player, by speaking to its audience and dissolving the illusions of spectatorship through irony, self-reference, and formal technique.
Early on the relationship between performer and spectator is centered. Li Huiquan, set adrift in life after prison, finds himself in a bar, transfixed by the amateur singing of the young Zhau Yaqiu (Lin Cheng). Xie utilizes a conventional eyeline match cut to show the relationship: Zhau performs and Li watches. However, as Li is further drawn into Zhau’s singing, her beauty and innocence, Xie fades in the first shot, of Li looking, over the shot of Zhau performing. The two are superimposed into a single image, the difference between them flattened. Slowly, a third shot, of two children walking a railroad track, fades in as the image of Zhau dissolves. Something in Zhau’s song has caused Li to recall an episode from his past, a lost moment of hope, a time before it all went wrong.
In this sequence Xie first sets spectator and performer in a classical relationship, one passive and another active. Then, their dichotomous nature is brought into question by a juxtaposition. The double exposure undoubtedly represents an intense identification on the part of Li—borne out later by his romantic pursuit of Zhau. However, if this is all we accept, we have not taken Xie’s point far enough. Spectatorship is less passive than we assume and the relationship between an audience and a performer is more complicated than we afford. As the third shot fades in, replacing the performer with a memory of a spectator, we see the creative energies of audiences, how looking can be a transformative experience.
Audienceship and its seemingly passive qualities are a not so subtle motif of Black Snow. It shows up constantly. Li watches Zhau sing in various clubs, always at the back of the bar. Later in the film, a criminal acquaintance asks Li to sell pornographic video cassettes. As the pair watch a tape, the small-time crook explains the job and the appeal the cassettes have to lonely Chinese northerners. To entice Li he pays for a prostitute (why watch the video if you can have the real thing?), but Li is not interested. In one sequence Li uncovers a young student stalking outside of Zhau’s window, a fan of her rising stardom. Li chastises the boy but is guilty of the same offense. At the end of the film Xie explores the motif reflexively, signally us to consider our own role as an audience and our responsibility to read his film critically.
Dejected by the unrequited love of Zhau, Li drunkenly stumbles through the city at night. He comes upon a large crowd, gathered round an outdoor theater. They’re watching several performers act out an absurdist comedy, a parody of a television news show. He joins the crowd. They laugh but Li is missing the joke. Finally, he laughs but it’s at the wrong time; everyone turns to look at him with chilly glances. He walks away feeling even lonelier. Not far from the crowd he is robbed by two teenagers and stabbed during the resulting scuffle. Li shambles back toward the stage just as the show is letting out. (The same steadicam technique from the opening shot is used here, the end wraps back to the beginning, a death refers back to a birth). The exiting audience walks past Li, not one among them noticing his mortal wound—or if they do notice, they do not care.
Li stands alone in the square, the theater ahead of him. Two performers appear, they’re out of costume and moving set furniture from the stage. The house lights come down. They call out to Li, mistaking him as “some guy from the audience” who hasn’t yet realized the show is over. But Li doesn’t cry out for help; he collapses into a pool of his own blood and the actors disappear. Another set of lights go out and it’s very dark. A wind blows over the body of our hero as the camera pulls back and floats into the air, as if a spirit leaving the Earth.
Xie signals to his film audience to consider his whole film as a construction. He introduces a stage play for which the screen is a corollary. He stages his actors in ways that recall the experience of watching a film in a theater. He figures Li as a member of an audience and so reminds us of our own role. So when those performers call out to Li, they also call out to us. “The show is over, go home.” Indeed, the movie is ending and unlike Jiang’s Li we can go home. In this way Xie asks us to wonder what our role is as a spectator and what our relationship to a performance (or a stage play or a movie) must be, and in turn what our relationship to society must be. It’s a provocation that is essentially Brechtian, distancing us from the illusion that the drama is a telling of real events, that the world must naturally exist in this way.
The final irony—that the central player of the film is mistaken as an audience member—reveals that Li’s tragic flaw might have been to never see himself as a lead of his own story, but always as an onlooker, passively accepting whatever befalls him, adopting comfortable truths and resorting to old habits. But again, this is to not take Xie’s point far enough—just as Li is not a member of the audience, we are not simply a passive audience to Black Snow. We are not mere observers of the movements of history, but in fact responsible parties in an ever changing society.
During his visit to IU Cinema for the Xie Fei: A Half Century as Filmmaker, Mentor, and Educator in the Fall of 2016, Xei Fei delivered a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture, was present for Q&A for screenings of his films The Mongolian Tale and Black Snow, and offered insights about his life and work in this exclusive interview.
Interested in exploring Chinese film? Join us throughout the Spring 2017 season for China Remixed at IU Cinema. IU Cinema is delighted to be part of IU’s inaugural Global Arts and Humanities Festival: China Remixed. IU Bloomington Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel has described the festival as giving “our entire community an unparalleled opportunity to become immersed in the work of some of today’s finest Chinese and Chinese-American artists and thinkers.” China Remixed at IU Cinema offers over 20 films and visits from four film world-class scholars. The film series begins with two films by Wang Tong: Banana Paradise on January 29 and Where the Wind Settles on January 30, both introduced by Professor Guo-Juin Hong. Other highlights of the series include In the Mood for Love, The Arch, Dragon Inn, A Brighter Summer Day, and much more. We look forward to sharing this ongoing festival with you.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Zulawski, Alex Ross Perry, and Ingmar Bergman. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.