The Fool and the Temple
China, 2016, b&w, 2.35:1, 81 mins.
Director: Cui Yingjie 崔英杰.
A droll comedy of manners on superstition vs capital that would have worked better as a short.
Shihe village, northern China, the present day. At a stone-crushing plant, owned by Zhou Laoliu (Wang Hongwei), an “earthquake” results in employees Suo Wang (Xi Yong) and the Cao brothers (Wang Ketao, Fu Liedong) being injured. After they recover, Suo Wang starts behaving strangely, as if possessed, and the Cao brothers demand extra compensation from Zhou Laoliu, who refuses to pay up. Local priest Qi Wuheng, aka Uncle Ba (Jiao Zhiqiang), thinks there is evil upon the land: he tries to “cure” Suo Wang but with no luck. Suo Wang’s sister, Suo Nizi (Zhan Fengfeng), says Zhou Laoliu’s plant has unbalanced the fengshui; and Zhou Laoliu’s superstitious wife, Guilian (Wu Yanchang), calls in Uncle Ba to exorcise whatever bad spirit there is in the plant. The village head (Wang Huaichen) advises Zhou Laoliu to have a talk with Uncle Ba, whom he sees as responsible for all the trouble. Uncle Ba explains that underground, in the southeast corner of the plant, are the remains of a temple to the Land God that was burned down (and its statue destroyed) by bandits during the Early Republic. Pressure grows for Zhou Laoliu to rebuild the temple and its statue in order to ward off bad luck, but he adamantly refuses. As employees start to leave, the village head urges Zhou Laoliu to solve the matter, as “stability brings prosperity”.
Spooked out by a series of weird accidents and events, some villagers try to force an industrialist to rebuild a shrine to the local Land God in The Fool and the Temple 保守之地, a droll comedy of manners in which superstition and capital come face to face. A neat allegory for any society, like China’s, that faces rapid modernisation, this first feature by writer-director Cui Yingjie 崔英杰 is precision-tooled at every level, from its immaculately composed, b&w widescreen photography to its phlegmatic script and performances. The whole thing, however, has the feel of a short story, and would have worked better at 50, rather than 80, minutes.
Cui, who studied film and had small parts in the shorts The Dream of Peking Opera 戏梦 (Deng Ke 邓科, 2013) and Requiem 安魂曲 (Wen Muye 文牧野, 2014), maintains from the outset just the right balance between naturalism and absurdity, helped by a cast of poe-faced northern villagers who just won’t let up on pressuring the local business bigwig into doing his civic duty. The story could equally have been told as a broad comedy but Cui keeps the whole thing tightly buttoned up with his stylised direction and the taciturn performances, as the locals shift from sullen resentment through passive resistance to outright rebellion. The final solution is a comic miniature in itself.
Performances are especially good by Jiao Zhiqiang 焦志强 as the wily local priest and Wang Hongwei 王宏伟 (the male lead in Platform 站台, 2000, and a Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯 regular) as the stubborn industrialist, but as with most of the characters Cui is unwilling to take them to the next level, to build fully-rounded, more engaging personalities. That’s fine for a short or featurette but not for a full-length feature, and especially one with as little plot as this one.
Much of the film’s success is due to the b&w photography by Duan Chunyu 段春宇 (and colour correction by Meng Xinglin 蒙兴霖) which avoids chiaroscuro in favour of a sharp, brightish look that gives the stone-crushing plant a brooding, ominous quality. (Cui has said that he and Duan looked at modern b&w films like Devils on the Doorstep 鬼子来了, 2000, Ida, 2013, and Nebraska, 2013, though none had a great influence on the final product.) Occasional music by Taiwan-based, Belgian pianist-composer Thomas Foguenne is spare, ranging from an opening misterioso to some quirkily humorous end titles, and could have been used more.
The film was shot around Zibo city, Shandong province, which ironically has a great cultural/historical heritage of its own. The Chinese title means “Protected Ground”.
Presented by Ximo (Beijing) Culture & Media.
Script: Cui Yingjie. Photography: Duan Chunyu. Editing: Sun Xiuheng. Music: Thomas Foguenne. Art direction: Yao Guiqiang. Costumes: Zhou Yayu. Sound: Zhang Ke.
Cast: Wang Hongwei (Zhou Laoliu), Jiao Zhiqiang (Qi Wuheng/Uncle Ba), Wang Ketao (Cao Shuangxi), Zhan Fengfeng (Suo Nizi, Uncle Ba’s grand-daughter), Wu Yanchang (Guilian, Zhou Laoliu’s wife), Wang Huaichen (village head), Xi Yong (Suo Wang), Fu Liedong (Cao Baishun, Cao Shuangxi’s brother), Yu Xinmin (Hu, plant guard), Liu Guangyong (Fuli), Zhang Yan (villager on bike), Xi Cheng (lorry driver), Liu Sen (Zhou Laoliu’s father), Wang Suhong (Fifth Aunt).
Premiere: First Film Festival (Competition), Xining, China, 23 Jul 1916.
Release: China, tba.