Betelnut (Bing Lang). 2005. Written, directed and photographed by Yang Heng. Produced by Liu Jinhou, Yang Heng, Tian Xiaopo and Wang Hongwei. Edited by Tian Kun. Music by Wu Jun. Location sound by Shen Jin Guang. Sound production by He Bin.
Cast: Tian Li, Liang Yu, Wu Ming, Dai Qi, Xiong Heqing, Zhu Ju, Gao Yi, Tian Linfeng, Duan Zhoujin, Ji Jiaxing, Xiang Peng, Fan Chao, Duan Zhouqian, Luo Xiadong, Wang Shengcong, Long Zeli, Quan Limin, Liang Xiaolong, Xiong Hui.
"Life seems so cheap sometimes." This statement by a girl succinctly expresses the philosophy of the aimless characters of Yang Heng's debut feature Betelnut, a quietly stunning film that finds great beauty in its stillness and austerity, rendering the actions of its characters within a rich musique concrete-like sound design and an intricately arranged visual field that makes us pay attention to the tiniest detail of its images. Yang often has major events of the film occur in extreme long-shot, obscured behind objects, or otherwise somewhere other than in the foreground. This serves to paint a compelling portrait of the restless youths in the film, who while away a hot, lazy summer by drifting on boats, voice chatting and playing video games at internet cafes, smoking, chewing betelnut, and having the occasional drunken binge in a karaoke bar. This all occurs in the ultimate dead-end town: there seem to be few opportunities or job prospects, no school, adults, or controlling authority, and the boys indulge in petty crime and thuggery. One of the characters manages to escape this place at the conclusion (although it's hard to say for how long), while the others remain trapped in this endless, nothing existence.
Set in Jishou, Hunan province (Yang's birthplace), Betelnut focuses on two young boys, Ali and Xiao Yu, who while away the days hanging out by the river and drifting on the boat where one of them live. They steal motorbikes and sell them to make money, which they use to hang out in internet cafes and drink at karaoke clubs. They are consciously take-no-shit tough guys, but they have major weak spots that manifest themselves, and in some sense are exploited by, the two girls they pursue romantic relationships with. One of the boys encounters a girl in an internet cafe, chatting with another boy online. He runs into her again after he meets her again at the gas station where she works. His friend pursues a girl who happens to already have a boyfriend. But romantic attachments here are just as ephemeral and tenuous as the other parts of their lives. Just as the boys assert their freedom to take what they want and beat down anyone else who gets in their way, the girls assert their freedom not to be attached to anyone, and to be free to be with anyone they wish at any time. This, naturally, creates some violent conflicts in the course of the film.
This is very familiar material, and fairly standard in films dealing with young people. The difference is in the bold and radical style Yang imparts to the material. The long-take aesthetic is a common mode of Asian art cinema; Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang are two of its better known adherents. Yang, however, takes this even further than other filmmakers, allowing the sense of oppressive stillness and heat of the environment to permeate our consciousness in a visceral fashion. Yang's approach to landscape composition has been compared to Chinese classical painting, and this pastoral serenity, combined with Yang's mostly fixed camera, proves to be a sharp contrast with the dramatic events that occur within this scenery. This effect is aided greatly by the superb sound design, which fills in significant narrative details and makes the film an even more vivid experience. Yang proves himself a major talent with Betelnut, a film which greatly rewards patience and observation. Yang's subsequent feature Sun Spots pushes this style even further, and there he comes up with even more lovely and mesmerizing results.
Betelnut screens tomorrow at 6:45 at Asia Society, as part of its series "China's Past, Present and Future on Film," highlighting recent independent Chinese films. Click here to purchase tickets. Use the discount code "asia725" to buy tickets at the $7 member rate.