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扁擔姑娘 (1998)
So Close to Paradise

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 05/27/2010

“So Close to Paradise”, according the a review in “The New York Times” was edited by official Chinese censors before it was released--so at least someone was doing something during the four years between the film’s completion and its release. The FRF DVD we watched had entire scenes of anti-social behavior--murder, rape, general thugishness--are simply missing. While it is clear that something happened--Gao Ping says that he had to kill someone, for example, although the audience has to guess at what happened between his realization that Su Wu has set him up and his throwing the murder weapon into the river. While it is impossible to tell exactly what was cut--only Wang Xiaoshuai and whoever was wielding the machete in the editing room know that--a restoration would make it much more intelligible.

The story is one that has been told for thousands of years. Two young men from a village in the countryside make their way to a bustling city where there is work for anyone with a strong back. Dongzi works on the docks as a “shoulder pole”, serving as the cheapest way of getting a heavy load of goods from one part of the city to another. He lives with Gao Ping who never does manual labor, wears a suit and smokes filter cigarettes, all indications that he strives to rise into the new moneyed class in China--even if it means dealing with fearsome gangs in the city. There seems to be a strong homoerotic shading to the relationship. In one scene Gao tells Dongzi that Dongzi hasn’t had a bath since he moved to the city. But instead of leaving it at that Gao grabs a bucket of water and bar of soap and bathes him. Later, when the beautiful Ruan Hong, a Vietnamese singer and karaoke hostess, falls for Gao Dongzi acts like a spurned lover, petulant and constantly upset.

Ruan Hong falls in love with Gao after he kidnaps and rapes her. While the minutes cut might ameliorate some of the wretched impact , there is no way it could be anything other than unnecessary and egregiously offensive. The assault itself was part of the brutality and corruption of the city and it is possible that Ruan stayed with Gao only to make sure he would be punished. He initially went after her to discover the hiding place of Wu Su a low level hoodlum who stole money from him. When Gao discovers that Ruan is the companion--actually the property--of a much more powerful gang leader he panics, as well he should since the gangster is as vicious a thug as has been portrayed on the screen.

There is a dual narration at work in “So Close to Paradise”. In an intermittent voice-over, Dongzi talks about how the “city people” looked down on the migrant workers from the villages. We find out very early in the movie that Gao doesn’t live to the end of it, Dongzi telling us that “I didn’t know how deeply he was involved until after his death”. There is another narrative device that interrupts and updates what Dongzi is telling us. This is the official view of things heard on radio and television news broadcasts. One story is a discussion of how prostitution has returned after being stamped out by the revolution; another talks about how young men who initially migrated to the city for temporary work have become an integral part of the labor force. The official story from the media is brought into the day to day life of the characters when Ruan is subjected to a live interview while in police custody about how she became a prostitute.

Ruan Hong is caught in a prostitution crackdown, the club where she works is closed and she is sent to prison. Gao, on the run from both the police and the gangsters, returns to meet his fate. Dongzi’s testimony apparently sends the gang leader who “owned” Ruan and whose men killed Gao to prison. Ruan returns to find Dongzi still in the apartment but now working for a different bunch of criminals.

A gritty and depressing that tells of men and women ground down by social and economic forces they can’t control and barely understand.