Ciao Ciao is the latest DVD release from Matchbox Films and a welcome surprise. Matchbox Films pick up a diverse range of films, but not usually a film like this which comes with the support of a Cannes Cinéfondation ‘Atelier’ tag and both a World Cinema Support Fund and CNC credit. Screened at the Berlinale in 2017, Ciao Ciao had a French release earlier this year and it perhaps says something about the current specialised cinema market in the UK that this is a DVD release. The film deserves to be seen on the big screen with cinema sound.
Writer-director Song Chuan is an experienced fiction and documentary filmmaker with a background in TV. His only previous cinema feature credit Huan Huan (2011) was a low-budget film with mainly non-professional actors and from a brief plot description it seems to have shared several elements with this new film.
‘Ciao Ciao’ is a young woman who returns to her village in the hills of Yunnan after working in the great urban sprawl of Guangzhou. The film opens with a very long shot of a mountain valley as a train crosses a viaduct and then a car snakes up the mountain road to bring the city girl home. Liang Xueqin as Ciao Ciao is tall and slim with long black hair and with her designer clothes and handbags she is visually out of place next to the village women, yet somehow her performance and the camerawork still convey that she hasn’t forgotten her village life. Even in her high block heels she steps confidently over rocky tracks. We are not given a specific reason for her return, but her parents are evidently pleased to see her and hope that she will take care of them in their later years. They don’t see that her arrival could disturb the local community.
In the Press Notes (which I struggled to translate from the French) Song Chuan explains that he shot the film in his own home village. He suggests that it is now quite difficult to see traces of the village culture he grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, he suggests, village life in the new high-growth economy means that money is everything and social behaviour is more direct – people do not express their true emotions but treat all exchanges as if they were economic transactions. Ciao Ciao’s mother sells corn liquor to supplement her income, buying it wholesale from an illicit distiller. Cia Ciao falls in with the distiller’s son Li Wei (Zhang Yu). He has also returned from time away from the village and spends his time whoring, drinking and gambling. All three activities involve illegal activity but corruption abounds in the village at all levels. A third character (played by Zhou Quan), a young man who runs a shop and claims to have been a hairdresser in Guangzhou, offers Ciao Ciao a different option. I won’t spoil the plot of what develops as an ultimately dark crime melodrama. It’s in some ways quite conventional in terms of narrative events but it’s presented in interesting ways and Song Chuan’s analysis of ‘the Chinese condition’ is clearly set out. This might be one reason why the film has not been released in China as far as I can see. Another might be the sex scenes which are carefully shot to be explicit without showing genitalia meaning that the film has a ’15’ Certificate in the UK. What is clear from these scenes is the offhand and misogynistic way Li Wei behaves towards Ciao Ciao.
The aesthetics of the film are striking and they do seem to have been carefully thought through. My first reaction to the opening scenes was that I was looking at landscapes that might have appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s historical films of the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. This was odd because Ciao Ciao is presented in CinemaScope framings with very careful compositions – and some of these compositions reminded me very much of Sixth Generation directors like Jia Zhang-ke. His Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, China-Japan-France 2002) would make an interesting comparison. The difference is that Jia’s films tend to focus on the industrial cities of his own home region in Shanxi province in Northern China. One festival reviewer points out that the early framings are in long shot and gradually they become more focused on medium shots and MCUs as we get closer to the character’s real emotions. This could be the case, though the final scenes return to long shots.
I enjoyed the film and I was grateful to be able to see it. The DVD is available from December 3rd and it’s a very welcome release of an independent Chinese cinema film.