QUICK SNAP: LIVE FROM TALLINN
A Chinese man is released from prison in Siberia ahead of the New Year. HIs name is Ma Biao (Liang Jingdong) and he appears to speak not a word of the country’s language. He occupies a strange space: both coming into its own after the collapse of the Soviet Union and bordering neighbouring China, a blend of cultures and ideas yet to realise itself. A song during a concert celebrating the New Year seems to encapsulate the paradoxical nature of society: singing of a better society while praising the great state of the now collapsed Soviet Union.
Stars Await Us, a Chinese film made in Siberia, pays homage to the traditions of both Chinese and Russian national cinema. This is film in a minor key, an endless melancholic reflection of how the choices we make haunt us told in long, slow takes and long, slow movements. While occupying a runtime that recalls trends in recent Chinese cinema while filled with the nostalgia that suffuses post-Soviet cinema, it is a cross-cultural tale of great academic interest but ultimately lacking in spirit.
Liang Jingdong, a regular in the films of Chinese royalty Jia Zhang-ke, plays Ma Biao as a sad, melancholic man, searching for his ex-girlfriend Karinna (Viktoria Ivanova) — seen dancing at a club in happier times. He shares his new apartment with Su (Zakharov Evgenij Sergeevich), a local policeman who cosplays as a clown. He walks around the rapidly changing snow-filled town looking for something, often trying to strike up a conversation with a woman (Hai Qing) who sells bread from a stall. But when he walks into a local bar and sees a Russian woman performing “Blue Train” — made popular in classic Soviet animation Gena the Crocodile — this reignites his quest to find the woman he once loved. In many ways he is like his companion Cheburashka, a foreigner in a foreign place, navigating a strange world.
But don’t expect any closure, or even any explanation of why he is found himself on the wrong side of the border. Traditional narrative structures are elided in favour of panoramic, sweeping takes and elliptical storytelling. Gangsters, often the focus of Chinese cinema, especially Zhang-ke, are giving the classical Chinese treatment. In Russian cinema they would be a little in your face, here they haunt the periphery of the story, threatening violence behind every slow and well-shot corner.
While the film is undoubtedly handsomely-shot, scored by a variety of Soviet disco classics, there doesn’t seem to be much that really brings Chinese and Russian culture together. At one point Ma Biao attends a Kino concert — the famous perestroika-era band who were the face of the changing Russian society — and while watching Viktor Tsoi strut his stuff, he seems to finally let go and enjoy himself. But Viktor Tsoi, perhaps the most prominent Asian-Russian of all time, albeit of Korean descent, would die that same year in a car crash, his loss a symbol of what the new Russia could’ve been. What this means in the context of the story is hard to say, which avoids easy categorisation in favour of severe ambiguity.
These stories exploring post-Soviet legacy while remaining nostalgic for its culture have become popular in recent years, especially in film festivals such as Tallinn. And there is a case to be made for the similarities between the two cultures, which both endured communism and changed towards a capitalist system in radically different ways. But there are more succinct and heart-wrenching examples out there. From this festival alone, we could recommend Goodbye Soviet Union, also referencing Gena the Crocodile and his companion Cheburashka, as a more touching and well-packaged version of seismic post-Communist changes.
Stars Await Us plays as part of the main competition of the Tallinn Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.