00:00 - 25th March 2010, by NEO Staff

Black Snow

Xie Fei is one of China’s Fourth Generation of filmmakers, a group overshadowed in the West by the success of their more famous compatriots of the Fifth Generation – Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and their ilk. That’s a shame because as Black Snow demonstrates, Xie Fei is a director whose work is well worth uncovering.
After three years in prison, Li Huiquan (Jiang Wen) comes back to his small home in Beijing and struggles to find his place in the world. Set at the end of the 1980s, China has changed while Li was incarcerated. His mother is dead, the local factory has shut and free market capitalism is the new mantra.
Unable to find a job, Li gets a licence to run his own stall at a local market but fails to attract many customers until black market entrepreneur Cui Yongli (Cai Hongxiang) gives him a shipment of fancy women’s underwear. While Cui wants to recruit Li for his operation, which includes distributing illegal pornographic videos, they fall out over a girl, nightclub singer Zhao Yaqui (Lin Cheng).
At first the set-up of Black Snow looks like a straightforward tale of an ex-convict trying to go straight, but at heart this is a character study of a lonely man out of step with the times. There is no incidental music anywhere in the film, no score over the opening titles, no music to lead viewers by the hand. Xie Fei lets the images and performances create the emotions.
The director receives first class support in this regard from Xiao Feng’s cinematography. When Li is first released from prison, he is constantly hemmed in by objects in the frame, denied any room to breath, a mental holdover from his time behind bars.Li meets Zhao Yaqui when he is asked to escort her home from the club where she sings. She is clearly interested in the strong, silent type but he sees her youth and innocence and maintains a respectful distance. Cui Yongli is not so chivalrous and has designs on the pretty singer, whose repertoire of romantic songs and wide-eyed appearance belie a girl with her heart set on success. The music may rub Western listeners up the wrong way but the schmaltzy love songs reflect the Chinese pop of the time.
With his hound dog expression, Jiang Wen’s performance as Li Huiquan is never flashy or overplayed. His acting may be low-key but there are moments that are deeply affecting as Li endures one disappointment after another. He cuts a sympathetic figure as a man trying to do the right thing for once, but finding there is little room for idealism in free-market China.
It is remarkable to see how much has changed since the film was released in 1990. The primary mode of transport in Black Snow is still the humble bicycle. This is China at ground level before the current economic boom. However, far from bring a dry historical document, Black Snow is a quietly compelling portrait of a man adrift in a country that has no use for him.
The DVD includes an excellent 32 minute interview with Xie Fei, in which the director discusses a variety of topics from his training in cinema, to the Cultural Revolution and his approach to teaching filmmaking.

A moving character study of a man adrift in modern China
SCORE: 4/5
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Black Snow Info
  • Type: Asian Film
  • Price: £12.99
  • Cert: 15
  • Distributor: Second Run DVD
  • Director:
  • Extras:

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