Difficult to enjoy and too reliant on its theatrical artifice for three overlong hours, this esoteric and inscrutable drama tackles China’s 20th-century history through the memories of a dead theatre troupe member ready to enter the afterlife.
Dir. Qiu Jiongjiong
2021 | Hong Kong/France | Drama/History/Experimental | 179 min | 1.78:1 | Chinese Dialect
NC16 (passed clean) for some drug use and coarse language
Cast: Yi Sicheng, Guan Nan, Qiu Zhimin
Plot: On a 1980s evening, the topmost clown-actor of the 20th century Sichuan opera, Qiu Fu passes away in an accident and half-unwillingly sets off for the Ghost City under the escort of two underworld officials. Along the way, he meets old friends. As they recall the past, a history of the living is conjured up.
Awards: Won Special Prize of the Jury & Nom. for Golden Leopard (Locarno)
International Sales: Parallax Films
Subject Matter: Moderate – 20th Century Chinese History; Theatre Troupe; Art & Politics
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex/Vignette-Style
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998), the recently deceased are asked to select a moment in their lives that they would like to take with them for eternity in the afterlife.
If you ask the protagonist in A New Old Play, what he would like to choose as his memento, I think he might have to think for a very long time. And a long time it is for Qiu Jiongjiong’s latest film, which runs for three excruciating hours.
An experimental ‘epic’ done on an intimate scale as a dead man recalls his memories of being a theatre troupe member during China’s tumultuous 20th-century history, A New Old Play is perhaps way too reliant on its theatrical artifice as its primary visual style so much so that it feels like a surreal stage play performed for the camera.
“I heard you’d died. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.”
It is difficult to enjoy and even watching it in four parts, I found it way too esoteric and inscrutable to really work. Its aesthetics is striking for sure, and if the narrative doesn’t hold your attention, at least there is something to look at, or maybe ponder about.
But what does the film really want to say? The struggle of artists in the dark world of politics? Sentimentalism for a torrid past now seen in retrospect as the raison d’etre for quiet resistance?
One thing is clear though, Qiu’s work exists outside of any official narrativization of history. If you can get past its abstractions and challenging pacing, it might just reward your patience. No luck for me though.