Bingjian Liu is a Chinese filmmaker best known for his 1999 film Men and Women, which was internationally praised as one of the rare LGBT-themed films by a Chinese director. The Back, made in 2010, remains his last feature to date. It was predictably banned in his native country, like most of his other works, due to its dealing with the high price of the commodification of China’s Cultural Revolution in the modern world. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was a comprehensive reform movement of China initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966 with the aim of eliminating counterrevolutionary elements in the country’s institutions and leadership. It was a time characterized by political zealotry, purges of intellectuals, and social economics chaos.
The Back mostly takes place in the mid-90’s, thus examining the repercussions of the Cultural Revolution on newer generations. This is primarily done through its character-driven story. Hong Tao (singer-actor Hu Bing) is a man in his 30’s who works at a restaurant and appears to have some connection with the art-world. We soon realize that his own body is a historicized artifact, similar to that of his mother, whose tattooed back has been sold for 10 million American dollars. This is also the reason why a childhood friend of his unexpectedly pops back into his life. Hong Tao eventually realizes that his life is in danger, but may already be too late to run away.
As mentioned, The Back also focuses on the direct repercussions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on younger generations. Hong Tao is still haunted by memories of his childhood and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, a brainwashed artist whose sole occupation appears to be an obsessive need to replicate Mao’s face in print and, apparently, on people’s backs. We witness the abuse through flashbacks. But the repercussions of the abuse on his present-day personal life are are most evident in his awkward relationship with his girlfriend Hua Dan (Jia Yuanyuan), who hotly desires him but is regularly rejected by his apparent reluctance to get intimate with her, and his best pal, Wenge (Xu Chengfeng).
Binjiang has a background in painting, which adds a personal connection and understanding of the theme of the indexical dangers of a historicized artifact. The premise of his film, the violation of the human body for the satisfaction of politically-induced desires, is certainly provocative. Furthermore, the shocking opening sequence clearly makes the connection between politics and sex, going so far as to imply that Hong Tao was raped by the father as a child.
Despite this shocking provocation, the film does not live up to the expectations of its set up. The message is blatantly obvious and far too stretched-out. As a thriller drama, it lacks a sense of mystery or urgency. Furthermore, its construction seems flawed. The aforementioned implication of rape is contradicted as soon as the premise of the film is put in motion. Yet, near the end of the film, the scene is replayed once again with slightly different camera angles that allow us to see the tattooing process. Several similar instances of clumsiness occur throughout the film. This carelessness, perhaps a sign of creative confusion, also harms the realist approach, sought through lack of music and handheld digital photography. – ★★
BEI MIAN || 2010, Hong Kong / France || Drama || Directed by – Bingjian Liu / Produced by – Julie Gayet, Bingjian Liu, Louise Prince, Man Hong Tong, Nadia Turincev, Jacky Chi Chak Yau / Written by – Ye Deng, Bingjian Liu / Cinematography – Jiansong Zheng / Editing by – Hui Mao / Starring – Bing Hu, Yuanyuan Jia, Chengfeng Xu, Ning Xu / Running time: 85 mins.