Dir. Nelson Yu Lik Wai, China, 2003, 96 mins, Mandarin & Korean/English subtitles
Yong Won-cho, Wei Wei Zhao, Dio Y-Nan, Na Ren
Review by Gavin Bush
China, with a recent history turbulent and bloody from cultural and political upheaval, is still mainly experienced in the West through lush period dramas or action films, martial arts or otherwise. Having studied film in Belgium, and working in Hong Kong and China, Yu Lik Wai offers an alternative voice. He wrote and directed All Tomorrow's Parties, a film to be viewed with this historic perspective in mind, even though the story focuses on human events that are symbolic rather than specific in their political references. It is a challenging film with a slow pace and bleak ambience evoking Tarkovsky's classic Stalker that, with an effort, manages to be rewarding.
In the near future, a religious sect rules continental Asia. Brothers Zhuai (Diao Yi-nan) and Mian (Wei Wei Zhao) have been sent to Camp Prosperity for re-education. Dressed in sheepskin waistcoats, the prison guards evoke a Mongolian or Asian feel rather than Chinese with an obvious reference towards Taliban and other current extreme religious fundamentalists.
Following a catastrophic overthrow of the sect, the guards leave and the inmates are left to wander into aimless freedom. They walk across endless industrial waste grounds to a deserted city. Zhuai falls in love with beautiful fellow escapee Xuelen (Yong Won-cho) and along with her young son they try and form a new life together in an abandoned apartment. But it proves to be a strange and transient life with only a vague future promised by the idyllic Port Perspective to look forward to.
In contrast to the warm colours usually associated with Chinese cinema, the palette used in All Tomorrow's Parties is cold; lots of blues and bleak grey tones, again reminiscent of Tarkovsky. The exception is some vivid and incomprehensible dream sequences. But there are also beautifully composed scenes with creative use of extreme shadow and pools of light that pick out the actors as they move across the frame accentuated by the high contrast of the video.
Shot in China and Mongolia but set across the whole of Asia , the only suggestion of the greater world outside that which the isolated central characters inhabit is through what they see on television. As a result the film has an unreal, dream-like quality throughout . Pauses and brevity in the dialogue create an emotional distance between the characters and their surroundings.
Like the lead characters in George Orwell's perennially relevant novel 1984 , inspired by Orwell's experiences with communists in the Spanish civil war, the fragile solace Zhai and Xuelen share together is touching, yet they are destined to separate.
All Tomorrow's Parties ends on an ambivalent note, with a return "back to the way things were", which in the context of contemporary China cannot be seen as optimistic. And the national army, viewed currently as persecutors in the West, are portrayed as liberators. This film throws up lots of interesting questions, amplified by the cultural references that Yu Lik Wai is drawing on, but it is not a film to watch for answers.