The High Life

With the independent documentaries Street Life (2006) and Ghost Town (2008), Zhao Dayong established himself as a sharp-eyed chronicler of cultural displacement, of people cast adrift or left behind by China's urbanization. Zhao's first fiction feature, The High Life, is set in similar thematic territory: the shabby outskirts of ever-expanding Guangzhou, where everyone seems to be either coming or going but nobody seems to be getting anywhere. The film focuses at first on small-time hustler Jian Ming, who uses a sidewalk “employment agency” to relieve migrant job seekers of their savings. Jian Ming forms an unexpected, fragile bond with Xiao Ya, a young woman recently arrived from the provinces, and we might expect the movie to follow their developing story. Instead, it abandons them entirely, using a failed pyramid scheme (“Urban Hunters of Success!”) as an excuse to move the plot into a local prison where a guard forces inmates to recite his incendiary verse. (The guard, played by Shen Shaoqiu, is a real-life policeman and underground “trash poet.”) In shifting from street realism to the surreal environment of the jail, The High Life reveals an allegorical impulse, highlighting the falsity of distinctions between control and powerlessness, freedom and entrapment, reality and art. Asked about the film's unconventional, pointedly unresolved narrative structure, Zhao said, “Life is just like this, absurd, disordered and without reason.” The High Life won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Silver Digital Award at the 2010 Hong Kong Film Festival.

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