Trees and mountains rush past. The film is shot in the narrow Academy ratio from a train window, in which the small crew is occasionally reflected. The train is on its way to Leshan, a city in the province of Sichuan. The 10-minute duration of one shot puts me in an attentive stupor, akin to if I had lain on my bed with my eyes closed during the day and thoughts had lined up in my mind in a disorderly fashion.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.1
SICHUAN HAO NUREN (THE GOOD WOMAN OF SICHUAN) watches time pass by. It is a contemplative film that not only depends on a large screen, but also a darkened room with armchairs and a given projection time, to unfold. Those who surrender to this „compulsion to perceive“ (Lars Henrik Gass) will be rewarded with a sense of „past-ture” when future and past culminate in the present.
A young woman sleeps on a windowsill. Like a young dog that has just been petted, she lies on her back, her head turned to one side. Not only the length of the shot, but the precise framing of the images too, create tension and transcend the observations of everyday life being filmed. Non-dramatic activity is rarely shown in the cinema, and yet it makes up a large part of life: sleeping, cutting hair, going for a walk, chatting. In the courtyard of a housing complex, a woman prods the pedals of an outdoor leg exercise machine with her foot and watches them swing back and forth. Each image of the film refers only to itself, like in a haiku. I gladly surrender to the instances, which are not crushed by any burden of significance, giving me space for my own reflections and memories.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?2
From the off-screen dialogue, I discover that an actress is visiting a friend for a few days and is looking for inspiration for a theatre production. She is due to play Shen Te in The Good Person of Szechwan a text that apparently nobody at school in China can avoid either. Brecht and his two collaborators, Ruth Berlau and Margerete Steffin, needed 27 attempts and a total of two years to complete this parable. „Szechwan” – the fictional capital of the province Sichuan – was supposed to be an ideal example of a place where „people are exploited by people”, as Brecht noted in the programme for the 1943 premiere in the bourgeois city of Zurich. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Brecht decided that the province Sichuan was no longer one of those places. And today?
Although Brecht set his parable in a fictional city, it seemed familiar to filmmaker Sabrina Zhao. To make the film, she travelled from Canada where she is studying film production, back to her hometown of Chengdu – the real capital of the province Sichuan – and decided with her cinematographer Sherry Wu to move the shoot to the nearby Leshan, which neither of them knew. The film only shows fragments of this city, which contains a population of three million. Zhao and Wu did not allow themselves to get carried away by new and surprising sensations but sought out the familiar in the unfamiliar. It is perhaps this detour that enabled them to imbue ordinary places with something strangely enchanting, such as a shady green strip on the courtyard side of a residential complex.
With their emphasis on competition and efficiency, globalised and capitalist achievement-oriented societies put people under pressure. Therefore, it might be provocative to simply be, without self-serving intent.
Perhaps, however, one should also take into account the social context outside the cinema to gain a deeper understanding of the film and its aesthetic strategy. With their emphasis on competition and efficiency, globalised and capitalist achievement-oriented societies put people under pressure. Therefore, it might be provocative to simply be, without self-serving intent. On the wall of Bertolt Brecht's study hung a gold-lacquered wooden mask from Japan that depicted an evil demon. Brecht noted in his workbook: „The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating what a strain it is to be evil.” Seen in this light, SICHUAN HAO NUREN might be a subversive cinematic action capable of driving the evil furrows from one's forehead, at least temporarily.
All the performances of The Good Person of Szechwan that I have attended have been bitter disappointments. The theatrical experience has always fallen short of the impressions gained from reading. Acted out, the text seemed wooden and rhetorical, even though it is more a hybrid than a didactic play. It is a wild mixture of melodrama and comedy that uses irony to pick up on choral elements from Greek tragedy and offers a variety of creative possibilities. When the Berlin homeless theatre group RATTEN 07 tackled the play in 2008, the mainly male actors presented their bodies, scarred by life on the streets, to the spotlight with relish. Their passionate performance was an anarchic sort of fun. The largely middle-class audience got caught up in this show of solidarity and was amazed by the productive sparks ignited by the collision of Brecht's ingenious arrangement with an experiential space inhabited by the humiliated and the insulted.
At the end of Zhao's film, six young men in tuxedos roar with laughter. For a stag do, they have to prove their masculinity in absurd tests of their strength. The camera is shaky, as this scene was probably documented by a cell phone. Because of the quiet flow thus far, the interlude seems like a horror film, a wicked farce. Only now do I notice the absence of men in the rest of the film. A country road in the middle of a forest. Deep cracks stretched across the grey asphalt like furrows in an old face. The actress walks along the side of the road with an umbrella. A second woman, perhaps her friend, follows her. Both are wearing summer dresses. After some time, a car stops and the driver approaches. Does he think that they are sex workers? The women wave him away, wanting to keep to themselves, and walk on through the thicket of the forest to the bank of a river.
I am awake but can’t move.
Nailed to the bed.
I can’t open my eyes. 3
Off-screen, the actress tells her friend about a dream that she tries to interpret: Someone came into the room and lay on top of her while she was sleeping. She tried to defend herself but could not move. The man had sex with her, raped her. When she was able to open her eyes again, she saw before her not an adult, but a ten-year-old boy. Bright sounds cover the images and something threatening creeps into the film. The actress embodies a cat, meows loudly, licks her hands like paws and recites a monologue by Shen Te.
For Brecht, the V effect – or alienation effect – was a social device. He wanted to expose the „individual type and his way of acting in such a way that the social motors became visible because they only became accessible through their domination. (...) The position of the individual in society would lose its 'naturalness' and come into the focus of interest“.4 The new staging of the play that the actress in Zhao’s film discusses is supposed to be abstract and fluid. The director works with improvisation. The performers have been asked to depict an animal in the first rehearsal. SICHUAN HAO NUREN also emerged during the shoot, alongside with collaborator He Weihang. The crew of three drifted along and trusted the production process to feed into the film.
In the last shot, a cap left on a park bench does not find its way back to its owner, but a boy does find his parents. He bounces up and down on his father's lap cheerfully. The film is able to evoke the state between wakefulness and sleeping that succeeds in creating connections that do not conclude anything but open up something new.
Nicolas Wackerbarth is a filmmaker, lecturer and co-editor of the film magazine Revolver.
Translation: Anne Thomas
1T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton, Four Quartets. New York, 1943, p 43
2Ibid. p. 4
3Subtitles from SICHUAN HAO NUREN by Sabrina Zhao
4Jan Knopf (Ed.): Brechts Guter Mensch von Sezuan. Frankfurt a. M., 1982, p. 16