Set and shot in Zigong, The Other Half follows 22 year old Zeng Xiaofen (Zeng Xiaofei); at work as a transcriber for a law firm, and at home with or without her drunken loser boyfriend Deng Gang. Much of the film consists of legal cases she transcribes. Based on real cases, they are compelling in a way that's half anthropological, half newspaper personal column. Outside of work Xiaofen slumps around town with coughing torpor, between a nagging mother and a handful of similarly ground down friends. (One of these performs the most wonderfully half-hearted strip tease in cinema history; unfortunately I can't find a proper list of credits.) These scenes are generally harder to watch; like Jia Zhangke in Unknown Pleasures Ying Liang seems to be trying to film boredom. Though not boring, they're not strictly enjoyable or enlightening either.
Ying doesn't need to foreground the social commentary in a film like this, the camera and the radio news do it for him. Even the more dramatic events in the finale, involving an industrial accident, simply require a relocation of news events from Haerbin to Zigong. People have suggested these films are about urban malaise, but I think that's a mistranslated European view. Films about the unemployment in the Paris outer suburbs are about malaise. Though China has plenty of unemployment, this is about a country, and people, working so hard to be rich, and once-again-powerful, that families scatter across the country and the air and water is filled with muck. If you want metaphors for this in The Other Half, there's too many to count. I liked the woman who went away to make money, and spent it on expensive shirts for her husband. When she came back, he wanted a divorce, and she comes to the lawyer's office with two suitcases full of shirts. The court ordered me to give them back, she says, as personal effects, but damned if I will.
At the questions afterwards Ying was asked about the cost of the film and the difficulties of getting it made and distributed in the PRC. It cost around 6000 Euros to make. That's twice as much as his first film, where he had to borrow the video camera. So they used all the low budget tricks they could, like getting empty streets by shooting at 4am. It was shot on DV and edited on a PC.
On distribution and censorship, he said the government basically takes no interest in a low budget film like this, distributed on DVD. Presumably it would be different if the low budget film was made by the Falun Dafa Xinjiang Liberation front. He said though cinema distribution is a different matter, most people in China are watching films on DVD nowadays, even banned films. It occurs to me that this is one of the reasons China is ultimately happy to follow the WTO IP regulations and limit DVD piracy. Even if they don't bother to suppress piracy in practice, as with internet cafes, the legal grey area advantages the state. The government can launch raids whenever something annoys them, confident in the knowledge that almost everyone is already guilty.
Nevertheless it's heartening to see expression like this continue to come out of China, and in that sense The Other Half is a gritty, downbeat, cinema verite ray of sunshine.
Interview with Ying Liang about his first film. The Other Half is on the festival circuit at the moment, coming at an intermittent and unpredictable time to an obscure arthouse cinema not particularly near you.