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Red Amnesia: Lest we forget

05-11 11:18 TimeOut Beijing
Wang Xiaoshuai discusses his latest film and why we must remember our past


Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers director Wang Xiaoshuai’s latest film is a mystery thriller that chronicles lives uprooted and twisted by the Cultural Revolution. He tells Nicola Davison why the past cannot be forgotten.

In April 2013, the Chinese novelist Yan Lianke penned an opinion column in the International Herald Tribune that carried the headline: ‘On China’s State-Sponsored Amnesia’. He begins the column with an anecdote about a teacher in Hong Kong who, on asking her Mainland students if they knew about the starvation of tens of millions of people during the so-called ‘three years of natural disasters’ (1958- 61), was met with stunned silence.

‘Have today’s 20- and 30-year-olds become the amnesic generation?’ Yan writes. ‘Who has made them forget?’ Yan’s column comes to mind when discussing Red Amnesia, director Wang Xiaoshuai’s latest film, not just for the word in both titles.

Red Amnesia is the final film in Wang’s Cultural Revolution triptych; the first was Shanghai Dreams in 2005, followed by 11 Flowers in 2011. The coda is the only film set in the present day, though as the English title suggests, the past is not so distant.

Red Amnesia is a mystery-thriller, centred on the cantankerous character of Deng Meijuan (played by Lu Zhong). Widow Deng is living out retirement in a shabby apartment in Beijing, a metropolis she finds bewildering. Deng’s main business is to be a constant presence in her sons’ lives. The eldest, Jun (Feng Yuanzheng), drives a new car and lives with his wife and son in a modern apartment building, but Deng’s constant interfering infuriates her daughter-in-law. Bing, the youngest son, works in a hair salon and lives with a boyfriend Deng refuses to acknowledge when she shows up unannounced to cook.

The film’s Chinese title translates to ‘The Intruder’. When Deng starts receiving anonymous prank phone calls her family thinks it further proof of her fraying mind. But then a mysterious, tattooed youth begins stalking her and everyone is worried. As the line between reality and imagination blurs, the mystery deepens. Who is this ghostly teen and why is he so threatening? Deng becomes haunted, too, by guilty, longburied memories of her time at a factory in Guizhou during the Cultural Revolution when she made a fateful choice. ‘Red Amnesia demands patience and close attention,’ says a Variety review. ‘But the well-acted drama’s enigmatic spell creeps up on you as it transitions from portraying an obsolete generation, forgotten by its children, to excavating the complicated history that same generation has chosen to forget.’

The theme of generational disconnect crops up persistently in Wang’s films, and most urgently in Chongqing Blues (2010). China’s startling economic rise, Wang suggests, has exacerbated the generation gap. ‘In China, we leapt from being a traditional society into a capitalist, modern society,’ the director, who turns 49 this month, says over the phone from Beijing. ‘It was not a gradual, steady process. This lack of process, the exaggerated “leap”, caused a divide not only between traditional and modern society, but also inevitably between generations.’

In Red Amnesia, Deng complains to the ghost of her husband about her childrens’ readiness to exclude her from their lives. When she goes to visit her own mother, who lives in a crowded retirement home and has lost her memory, Deng learns that Beijing’s elderly, abandoned by their offspring, are arriving in droves. ‘The characters in my films are individuals desperately in need of attention and care,’ Wang says. ‘Red Amnesia, I think, portrays the older generation that I have met and observed. The first half of [Deng’s] life, her youth, was in a totally different society. There were units, committees and community. People swam with the stream. The difference is that her generation went through [the Cultural Revolution]. Mrs Deng keeps the lights dim at home, because she is scared too much light will cost a lot.’

A defining characteristic of Deng’s generation, Wang suggests, is selective forgetting. After the horror and tumult of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, and as Deng Xiaoping rolled out the reforms that would soon catapult China towards double-digit economic growth, ‘people hoped they could get back what they had lost as soon as possible’, Wang says. ‘At that point someone in the central government proposed that everyone forget the past and look forward. After such a long trauma, everyone thought it was a wise choice. Why should we be nostalgic for the old days? Now it occurs to me that this seemingly simple idea has become a peril lurking in the future.’ For Wang the mystery-thriller was the natural genre through which to transmit a sense of creeping danger.

To conclude his IHT column, Yan writes: ‘I believe a truly great people are people who have the courage to remember their own past, and a truly great nation is a nation that has the courage to record its own history’. Like the ghostly teenager that visits Deng, Red Amnesia invites viewers to confront the past. ‘I think that many problems in China seem to happen right now, but actually the roots and the causes can be traced back to history,’ Wang says. ‘We should bring “the past” right here so that everyone can think about the positives as well as the mistakes and learn a lesson from it. The disasters and traumas that the people suffered should not be in vain. I choose not to forget.’

Alex Sun contributed to research and translation.

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