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For Fun

找乐 (Zhao Le)

199297 mins|Director Ning Ying 宁瀛


intro

With a cast made up almost entirely of elderly male pensioners, Ning Ying, one of China’s most innovative post-Cultural Revolution female film directors, tackles the problems of ageing and social displacement in a tragi-comic depiction of the challenges facing elderly people trying to find their place in the rapidly changing society of Beijing in the late 1980s. Things seem to be going very badly ...

With a cast made up almost entirely of elderly male pensioners, Ning Ying, one of China’s most innovative post-Cultural Revolution female film directors, tackles the problems of ageing and social displacement in a tragi-comic depiction of the challenges facing elderly people trying to find their place in the rapidly changing society of Beijing in the late 1980s. Things seem to be going very badly for Old Han. He has just retired from his job as caretaker, stage hand and driveshaft of day-to-day operations at the Beijing Opera Academy. Now that he is no longer needed at the theatre, the clashing of cymbals and cacophony of stage-managing daily performances suddenly gives way to the ticking of the clock and the bare solitude of his widower’s lodgings. As Old Han wanders the dusty streets around Di Tan Park, against a music soundtrack that suggests the quickening pace of the commercial revolution, the disdain written all over his severe face clearly indicates his disorientation and the unfamiliarity of his new situation. Adopting an equally displaced but comparatively cheerful and good-natured young man, probably with Down’s Syndrome, whom Old Han reprimands severely for peeping through the windows of the local bathhouse on ladies' day, he chances upon an amateur group of Beijing opera fanatics – pensioners who sing arias together in the park and argue about the finer points of vocal technique. Old Han’s supercilious and critical air soon establishes him as an authority in the art, but his young friend steals the show, as ironically the old people accuse him of being the one who is always 'zhao le', ‘looking for fun’, when in fact Old Han is striving to get them to adopt a much more serious attitude towards their operatic practice. But the comfortable rhythm of the troupe’s hobby is about to change, as Old Han insists that they all commit to raising their standards of performance in order to succeed in competition with other groups.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London)

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screening notes

context

Zhao Le 找乐 (For Fun, 1992) is the first installment of director Ning Ying's so-called 'Beijing Trilogy' of films, followed by Minjing gushi 民警故事 (On the Beat, 1995) and Xiari nuan yangyang 夏日暖洋洋 (I Love Beijing, 2000). For Fun is about retirees trying to set up a Peking amateur opera group; On the Beat is a quasi-documentary police movie in which police officer Yang 杨 is ordered to round up and ex...

Zhao Le 找乐 (For Fun, 1992) is the first installment of director Ning Ying's so-called 'Beijing Trilogy' of films, followed by Minjing gushi 民警故事 (On the Beat, 1995) and Xiari nuan yangyang 夏日暖洋洋 (I Love Beijing, 2000). For Fun is about retirees trying to set up a Peking amateur opera group; On the Beat is a quasi-documentary police movie in which police officer Yang 杨 is ordered to round up and exterminate all the stray dogs in the neighbourhood, but discovers that the social system is the real enemy, while I Love Beijing follows the life and loves of a young taxi driver. However, the 'Trilogy' label has only been conferred retrospectively: each of the 3 films is quite independent of the others and creates its own cinematic world, in the case of Zhao le that of elderly retirees looking for some interest and purpose in their lives after the end of paid employment.

Reverence for one’s elders was a cornerstone of the Confucian humanistic ethics of imperial China. Society was hierarchical with elderly men at the top of the tree. But the youth culture that was central to most of the cultural and political revolutions of 20th-century China seemed to have brought more than two millennia of this elderly privilege to an end. However, thanks to the great increase in life expectancy during the post-1978 'Reform era', in a few short years, China has overtaken the developed nations of the West to become the world's fastest-ageing society. In the wake of China’s extraordinary achievements during the past 40 years in improving healthcare, guaranteeing subsistence, raising the majority of its people out of poverty and greatly increasing life expectancy, by 2050 some 25% of its population will, like Old Han, be over 65. A unique burden of care will fall on both the government and the single-child carers that are the result of the one-child policy. In the past 25 years, there has been an increasing number of films which have highlighted this problem. Zhao le is a snapshot of a particular Chinese urban culture seen at a point in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the new-found problem of ageing had begun to accelerate and become much more noticeable. At that time, elderly people gathered in the parks to make the most of their new-found leisure time: elderly couples took up Latin American dancing, or practised Taiji quan and the martial arts; the men showed off their caged birds or played chess; choirs sang revolutionary songs, and lone singers belted out operatic arias. With the decentralisation of welfare responsibilities to the communities in urban areas, the urban elderly have made a comeback, but the cohesive neighbourhood social structures that supported these communities is breaking down.

The Director Ning Ying (b. Beijing, 1959) is one of the leading members of the Fifth Generation class of Chinese film-makers who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982, and probably the best-known and most successful female film director and screenwriter working in China today. From 1982 to 1986 she studied film in Italy, and she was Bernardo Bertolucci’s assistant director for The Last Emperor (1987). After initially assisting other directors, Ning Ying made her directorial debut in 1990 with the comedy feature You ren pianpian aishang wo 有人偏偏爱上我 (Somebody Loves Just Me). However, she is best known for her so-called 'Beijing Trilogy', of which Zhao le找乐 (For Fun, 1992) is the first installment (See above, 'Movie Context'). Since the release of the Beijing trilogy, Ning Ying has been widely regarded as the main representative of contemporary Chinese ‘neorealist’ cinema (xin xianshi zhuyi新现实主义), which combines quasi-documentary film technique with realistic storytelling. Her characteristic blend of wit and social criticism has become a hallmark of her art as a filmmaker, screenwriter and editor, while her use of amateur actors, everyday urban settings and realist shooting technique have made her China's best-known chronicler of the contemporary Beijing of ordinary people.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London) and Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing)

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synopsis & relevance

To fill the emptiness that recent retirement has thrust upon him, Old Han (Huang Zongluo 黄宗洛), a recently retired caretaker and backstage assistant at the Beijing Opera Academy, conceives of a new role for himself as the manager of a raggle-taggle troupe of elderly operatic amateurs whom he encounters in a Beijing park. Enthused with the possibility of turning them into serious contenders at the N...

To fill the emptiness that recent retirement has thrust upon him, Old Han (Huang Zongluo 黄宗洛), a recently retired caretaker and backstage assistant at the Beijing Opera Academy, conceives of a new role for himself as the manager of a raggle-taggle troupe of elderly operatic amateurs whom he encounters in a Beijing park. Enthused with the possibility of turning them into serious contenders at the New Year competition, he negotiates for a place to rehearse. The rehearsals, however, become a battlefield between Old Han’s authoritarian, rule-bound approach to direction and the more relaxed attitude of his fellow retirees, in particular, that of the troupe’s lead performer and opera buff, Qiao Wanyou 乔万有 (Huang Wenjie黄文杰), who plays the female roles. The ensuing conflict between Old Han's humourless and dictatorial manner, on the one hand, and the hysterical, affected behaviour of the effeminate drama queen, on the other, heighten the film’s dramatic tension, as Old Han’s imperious barrage of stage directions reaches apoplectic levels as the troupe compete in the local talent show.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London)

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cinematography

A long slow tracking shot through the busy commercial streets of 1980s Beijing, to the accompaniment of the Kurt Weill ‘Ballad of Mack the Knife’, segues into a contrasting series of short cuts that conveys the excitement and fast action of a Peking opera production in full swing, with Old Han at the centre of the back-stage action. This contrasts dramatically with the silence of his desolate home...

A long slow tracking shot through the busy commercial streets of 1980s Beijing, to the accompaniment of the Kurt Weill ‘Ballad of Mack the Knife’, segues into a contrasting series of short cuts that conveys the excitement and fast action of a Peking opera production in full swing, with Old Han at the centre of the back-stage action. This contrasts dramatically with the silence of his desolate home and his total lack of family support on the morning after his last day at work, and with the atmosphere of casual indifference bordering on outright rudeness which greets Old Han when he revisits his former place of work, and finds that his young successors have lost no time in rearranging the office furniture and fittings and relaxing his insistence on strict observance of the house rules and routines. But the most enduring image is that of the elderly amateur operatic troupe all made up for the local talent show. Their heavily made-up faces eloquently convey the pathos of their situation and the tragi-comedy of their collective failure and social redundancy.

Since the release of her 'Beijing trilogy' (See above, 'Movie Context'), Ning Ying has been widely regarded as the main representative of contemporary Chinese ‘neorealist’ cinema (Xin Xianshi Zhuyin 新现实主义), which combines quasi-documentary film technique with realistic storytelling. Her characteristic blend of wit and social criticism has become a hallmark of her art as a filmmaker, screenwriter and editor, while her use of amateur actors, everyday urban settings and realist shooting technique have made her China's best-known chronicler of the contemporary Beijing of ordinary people.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London) and Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing)

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points for discussion

Zhao le shows some of the very particular ways in which Chinese culture in the late 20th century has attempted to deal with the pressing problems of a rapidly ageing society. In a few short years, China has become the world's fastest-ageing society, and by 2050 some 25% of its population will, like Old Han, be over 65. A unique burden of care will fall on both the government and the single-child c...

Zhao le shows some of the very particular ways in which Chinese culture in the late 20th century has attempted to deal with the pressing problems of a rapidly ageing society. In a few short years, China has become the world's fastest-ageing society, and by 2050 some 25% of its population will, like Old Han, be over 65. A unique burden of care will fall on both the government and the single-child carers that are the result of the one-child policy. Ning Ying’s film is a snapshot of a particular Chinese urban culture seen at a point when the new-found problem of ageing had begun to accelerate and become much more noticeable in the 1980s. At that time, elderly people gathered in the parks to make the most of their new-found leisure time: elderly couples took up Latin American dancing, or practised Taiji quan and the martial arts; the men showed off their caged birds or played chess; choirs sang revolutionary songs, and lone singers belted out operatic arias. With the decentralisation of welfare responsibilities to the communities in urban areas, the urban elderly have made a comeback, but the cohesive neighbourhood social structures that supported the kinds of community-based recreational activities most likely to preserve and enhance the health and well-being of the elderly is fast breaking down, and the survival of the traditional 'yangsheng' culture practised by many Chinese retirees seems very doubtful.

At the same time, For Fun also draws attention to a number of other issues of particular importance from a Chinese medical-humanities standpoint, notably the place of the physically and mentally disabled in Chinese society, and the potential contribution of the able-bodied elderly to Chinese society as a whole. For the increasing numbers of elderly retired Chinese people who have retained their physical strength and mental capacities largely undiminished, at least for the time being, the question arises as to how best to make use of their vast reserves of knowledge, experience, skills and creativity for the good of society as a whole while enabling them to enjoy their new-found leisure opportunities to the full. What expectations should the able-bodied elderly have of themselves? Should they simply be allowed to enjoy retirement, without any pressure to achieve set goals, or should they strive to attain the highest level of performance of which they are capable? Is retirement just 'For fun', or is it simply another phase in a lifetime of competitive striving, as Old Han seems to believe? The film presents both these contrasting attitudes sympathetically and in doing so invites the audience to participate in a broader process of reflection on the meaning of the good life throughout its different phases, especially the transition from working life to retirement.

Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London) & Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

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