It’s frustratingly difficult to get hold of Hongqi Li’s previous films Routine Holiday and Hao Duo Da Mi, even in his native China, so I’m coming to Winter Vacation as a Hongqi Li novice. I understand he’s better known as a poet, though I haven’t been able to read up on him much. But believe me when I say that, with Winter Vacation, Hongqi Li has crafted the most Scandinavian Chinese film ever. A bold claim, yes. Also true.
Plotwise, Winter Vacation checks up on the activities of a few kids on the last day of their winter holidays in Inner Mongolia. Like the masters of Scandanavian deadpan, Sweden’s Roy Andersson, and Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki, Hongqi Li sees this as the ideal setting for some tortuously awkward comedy. But unlike Andersson and Kaurismuki who generally foster a sort of magic-realist atmosphere, Li ramps the ‘not-much-going-on-here’ vibe to Bela Tarr levels. Nothing happens. And it’s hilarious.
Teens meet on the street, realize they have nothing to do, and don’t even bother talking about how little there is to do. Their friend spends as much time sleeping as possible. One young boy is involved in a silent, day-long battle of wills with his Grandfather, who won’t let him out to play. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?‘ his cousin asks. ‘An orphan‘ he replies. ‘You’re the most pitiful child I know‘ she says. The laughs per-oneliner ratio is pretty much 1:1, but you have to go through a LOT of pregnant pauses to get there.
Describing any of the events in the film is likely to spoil it, because only about five things of significance occur. But the grinding absurdity of life is so well depicted, so odd and so awkward that you pretty much have to laugh. Or you’d cry.
My understanding of Chinese censorship is that anything that is critical of China is shelved. And while the film is directly political, it’s not going to appeal to tourists. The town is extraordinarily drab, albeit beautifully photographed. The only hope is escape from the town, or from parents. The film closes *SPOILERS* with a classroom being told that nothing they learn will ever amount to anything in the real world, and then the teacher is told he’s in the wrong class. A loud punk song plays as the children look increasingly more bored. It’s kind of breathtaking. *END SPOILERS*
Obviously, making tedium appealing is quite an achievement, something the Scandinavian deadpan mafia are quite adept at, and now Hongqi Li, on only his third film seems to be a master too. I assume they’d welcome him into the club, but would actually probably just look at him, shrug and then go back to staring at the wall. God bless them.