Quitting (Zuotian) (China, 2001) ***
Directed and co-written by Zhang Yang. Co-writer, Huo Xin. Photography, Wang Yu & Cheng Shouqi. Editing, Tang Hong Yu. Art direction, An Bin. Music, Zhang Yadong. Cast: Jia Honsheng, Jia Fengsen, Chai Xiurong, Wang Tong, Zhang Yang, et al. A Sony Classics release. 112 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles. R (drug addiction)
The Chinese title means "Yesterday," or so I was told. In fact, the title might have been "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," that of a very good and most amusing movie (1963) by Vittorio de Sica, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
"Quitting" is good but not amusing. In a sense, its main attraction is the bold technique of its director. His previous feature was the excellent, warmer, gentler and kinder "Shower," (1999). This time , the filmaker takes chances with an avant-garde-ish structure.
Here is the bare bones of the sometimes murky story which makes ample use of flashbacks and flahforwards. It is set in the early and the mid-1990s. Jia Honsheng has become a popular film actor via action roles. Fed up, he accepts a part in the serious play "The Kiss of the Spider Woman." While acting in --or rehearsing for-- it, he becomes a drug addict who alternates between pot and heroin. His parents, both provincial theater actors, take an early retirement so as to come to Beijing and rescue their son. He treats them badly, which is doubly shocking in a country that maintains respect for one's seniors. The three, plus a sister already living in the apartment, are not exactly pop, mom and sis. They are cowed by the intolerant JH whose ups and downs (mostly downs and downs) are perfectly credible.
The father, who apparently has had his own problems with the bottle, ranks as Number Two in complexity. Honsheng is schizophrenic-paranoid. His veneration for the Beatles and especially John Lennon reaches a nadir when he starts believing that he is Lennon's son. (Honsheng in fact does look a bit like the late ex-Beatle.) He is placed in a specialized hospital (i.e. a looney bin) and cured, or so it would seem. The movie comes to an end --and closure? Who knows?-- on Honsheng's 29th birthday.
Here comes the Big Twist. The story is true. The events are true. The names are true. The father, mother and others are played by the real, actual, unadulterated persons.
Matters are made more complex --whether more so than necessary is up to the viewer-via a neo-Pirandellian addition of the characters doing a stage-play of the whole situation. There is even a touch of Kurosawa's "Rashomon" as different people are asked for information about Honsheng.
You will find straight as well as black humor in this movie, but in mini-doses, as when the father, dispatched by the son to purchase film videos of the Beatles and especially of Lennon, gets confused by those mysterious names. By and large, however, this film is a daring blending of cinema-verite (an ancestor of "reality" films) and juggling with elements of fiction. What strikes me is that this unusual blend comes from China. It is like finding Picassos adorning Tiananmen Square.