Drifters (Er Di) (2003)

***SPOILERS***

…but if you’re planning to watch this film for its narrative arc or for the final resolution of its principal plot points, I wouldn’t recommend it to you in the first place.

In the backstory, a young man (“Er Di” or “Little Brother”) tries to immigrate illegally to the U.S., fails twice, finally succeeds as a stowaway, meets a young woman in America, and fathers a child. After several years, he is reported to the INS by the young woman’s family. He’s deported and returns to his hometown, a fishing port in Fujian province, across the straits from Taiwan.

The movie begins after he’s been back awhile. He meets another woman and commences a desultory romance with her (and I do not use “desultory” lightly, as only well into their relationship, at 1 hour, 9 minutes into the movie, does he look over at her and say, “What’s your name?”). But otherwise he languishes, to the distress of his parents and older brother. The maternal grandparents bring his child back to China for a visit. The boy is now five. The young man, aimless, drifting, tries to see the boy. The grandparents refuse any contact between father and son. Conflict ensues. Eventually, the grandparents return to the U.S. with the boy. The young man’s oldest brother cannot sire a child and so the boy in America is the family’s only heir. Even if the young man fathers other children, the boy in America will be the oldest brother in the family for his generation, which means something in Chinese culture. The young man must seek to retrieve the boy from America. He and his new girlfriend set out, stowing away, on a dangerous trip that could take a year to complete.

Speaking of taking a year to complete, be warned that “Er Di” is a slow movie. Two hours pass quietly as it plays out, drifting past on the screen. If your tolerance for slow is limited, plan accordingly. Forewarned by a previous Maven review, I waited until I was in the right frame of mind to watch it. That is, until I was in the mood to sit back and meditate on the scenery and political significance of the film during those long stretches when Little Brother stares into the middle distance and smokes. I didn’t clock him, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that half the movie consists of Little Brother (Long Duan in his first role) staring and smoking. He smokes alone and he smokes with others, who smoke along with him. Belmont, California, just banned smoking in privately owned multi-unit condos and townhouses (that is, you can’t smoke in your own house). Fujian is located far from Belmont. When I asked a Chinese friend why there was still so much smoking in China, she said, rather defensively I thought, “Hollywood movies used to be full of smoking!” No fears for you RJR stockholders.

Anyway, some movies work fine just as a pleasant surprise. That is, you the viewer go into the theater or sit down in your BarcaLounger knowing nothing about the film you are going to see in advance, and you have a good time with it. For example, some years ago the spousal unit and I went for a hike one Saturday out in the middle of nowhere, braving ticks, nettles, rattlesnakes, the heat, and the ninth month of her pregnancy in order to do a little birding in unfamiliar countryside, and then we picked up a couple of Big Macs and smuggled them into a small local theater in a rural town nearby for an afternoon matinee. Something called “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” We sat and watched it and ate our burgers as it unreeled. No prior knowledge required for enjoyment. But for the on-the-go Hollywood-trained film fan, Er Di is not that kind of drop-in-and-enjoy movie.

The movie’s title also signals that some foreknowledge may enhance the viewers enjoyment. “Er Di” translates as “Younger Brother” in Mandarin. Er Di is the nickname of the young man, the movie’s protagonist. The title alerts us to the fact that there may be cultural issues and resonances in the film not readily available to the Western viewer. For example, I remember being surprised when I found that “father’s older brother, father’s younger brother, mother’s older sister, and mother’s younger sister” were among the first characters to learn in my 1944 Chinese grammar book. And I noticed the other night that the character for elder brother’s wife is #2190 on the list of 3000 common Chinese characters. A table of family-relationship terms extends from the great-great grandparent’s generation to the great-great grandchildren’s generation. (Refer to http://www.kwanfamily.info/familytitles/familytitle.html.)

With so many different words used to identify family members and their position in the family hierarchy, we can expect Chinese culture to contain unspoken subtexts in a plot such as the one outlined above – specific family relationships that bear on elements of the drama in ways that might escape the uninitiated Westerner. This is just something to keep in mind when “explaining” the movie to someone else.

The American title, “Drifters,” applies, one supposes, to Er Di himself, as he is becalmed, depressed, paralyzed. Or because he is adrift between two cultures: the modern world emerging now in China and the proletarian culture that has persisted in Fujian.

I hope the title is not meant to refer to those in the movie who are moving to the big cities to find work or are immigrating sub rosa to the U.S., acts of bravery and desperation that are far from “drifting.”

I was reminded of Chinese/American cultural differences multiple times throughout the movie. For example, Little Brother, sitting at the kitchen table and eating a meal with others, or out at some small cafe with friends, casually spits bits of food – stems or gristle or whatever – onto the table in front of him, beside his bowl. This is something that would seem unusual at my kitchen table, my spousal unit’s opinion of my table manners notwithstanding. I asked several Chinese friends about this, wondering whether this spitting was a statement by the director about Little Brother’s current state of mind. My friends told me that you wouldn’t spit at a nice restaurant, but that in a home kitchen or at a casual foodstand, country folks spit whenever and wherever it’s convenient. (For more than you want to know about spitting in China, refer to a page such as this one.)

On the other hand, the “older child living at home” motif doesn’t seem so different, China vs U.S. What is it with the adult child who comes home to live with the parents and doesn’t contribute? Perhaps jobless and broke but not looking that hard for work? Never missing a meal unless still in bed? Slow to help with chores? I’m not saying this is always the case with kids living at home, of course, but as a motif in the movie, this kind of behavior on the part of Er Di causes the father to go off in rage once or twice. And more than one parent has watched in amazement as the evening meal winds up and the grown child gets up and saunters off, leaving any cleanup to his elders. The human animal, slow to mature… but this is ridiculous.

However, I digress… Er Di pronounces twenty or thirty words in an hour and fifty-seven minutes. Why so laconic? In many romantic comedies, the director keeps the plot wheels spinning by not allowing the protagonists to simply tell each other things that would clear up their conflict. Not the case here. And in some movies, the writer and director are simply not up to creating adequate dialog, so they rely on meaningful glances from the actors to get the job done. The writer/director of Er Di, Xiaoshuai Wang, a 41-year-old from Shanghai, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy as one of its “Sixth Generation” or “Urban Generation” group of directors, which also includes Jia Zhangke (Platform, 2000) and Zhang Yuan (Seventeen Years, 1999). Wang made five films before achieving international success with Beijing Bicycle (2001). Er Di, his eighth film, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in competition for the Prix Un Certain Regard but failed to win any prizes. His eighth film, Shanghai Dreams (2005), won Cannes’s Prix du Jury award. So we can assume the actor is not laconic as a consequence of directorial dialogical incompetence. Instead, his silence makes a statement and I take that statement to be a political one.

How laconic is too laconic, anyway? Silent man – the cowboy, the uncommunicative husband, the tough guy – are common in the movies. They convey their thoughts by taking action. Likewise, he who has suffered some tragic loss may do a lot of staring and jaw-muscle bunching. We the audience are trained to tolerate this, up to a point. However, if enough characters ask the silent one questions that go unanswered, and we know that the director could provide answers if he wanted to, at some point we have to sit back and think of other things. Otherwise we’re just batting our heads against a directorial wall.

This point arrived for me at the one-hour mark in this two-hour movie. Little Brother’s big brother, who is involved in local government, leans on him to come to a “workshop” meeting and talk to the youth of the town. There is a widespread belief among the young that the U.S. offers easy women, luxury, and high-paying jobs. They don’t believe the local government officials, including Er Di’s big brother, who try to tell them differently. One young man, Monkey, has died recently after stowing away. Big brother tells Er Di that if he will explain to the young men that the U.S. is not so hot and that stowing away is very dangerous, they will believe him. So, we’re at the meeting. Big brother introduces Er Di and then leaves the hall so that Er Di can speak freely. The young men shout questions at him: are the U.S. women really easy like they say? Is there easy money in America? Did Er Di have to wash dishes? Etc. Er Di sits, wordless, staring off into space, looking troubled. The young men urge him to speak. I’m perking up now, waiting for the monologue: coming to America, what that was like, the perspective of a small-town Chinese man arriving over the big water. Speak, Er Di, speak.

But noooooo… Take that wordless angst and like it! And I’m all, Xiaoshuai! Throw me a bone here!

So that’s when I knew for sure that that’s all I was going to get in this movie. Er Di’s girlfriend looks at him and says “You know what? You’re strange.” No lie.

And it happens again. The police arrive to talk to him about his conflict with his father-in-law. They just want to discuss the situation and get some answers to a few simple questions. Good moment for a monologue. Er Di lights up a cigarette, fixes gaze on distant object; cat’s got his tongue.

The question then becomes, having read this review this far – Thank you! You are among the special, lucky few! – how do you plan to spend the time in this movie during which a static camera stares at Er Di as he stares at nothing at all and works his way through several decks of Marlboros? (Marlboros are very popular in China.)

Some suggestions:

1. Take in the sights and sounds – A smaller Chinese coastal fishing town, to include streets, alleys, vendors, cemeteries, travelling traditional Chinese opera, bikes, motor scooters, a big bridge, scows and freighters, long thin red ceremonial incense sticks, real rain. Bay mud. Adidas sweatshirts. But no automobiles. None. Wang has thrown two hours of celluloid up there with no cars in it. This could not happen by accident. Why has he done this? In one shot, as the camera follows beside a bicycle and motor scooter, several vehicles whoosh behind. There is a glimpse of red metal. A horn is heard honking. Is Wang emphasizing the town’s economic doldrums? Can it be that there are really no cars?

To continue: simple bare home of the low-income with linoleum floors, small lived-in kitchen, white tile, age, mosquito netting. Plus an upper-class home still pretty sparse. An auteur shot with the protagonist getting up from the table in the cafe and going outside, the camera, unmoving, watching the others at the table as they turn to look out the window, and Er Di himself, seen out there through the window beyond the table, as he bonks himself on the head in distress and the others jump up and run out and we’re left alone in the cafe looking across the empty table and out through the window as the friends gather around the wounded Er Di on the ground.

And in the midst of the quiet, the director does take a moment from time to time to wrangle back your attention via, for example, the girlfriend taking off her blouse in Er Di’s bedroom, or the frequent appearance of the F word in the subtitles (three words together in Mandarin mean the same thing), or a fight between Er Di and his father on one side vs the police on the other. And speaking of Mandarin, it’s still striking to me to hear, in the coursing flow of the language, the words Mama and Baba jump out.

2. Practice cinematical meditation – I remember reading a treatise on “moving meditation” once. T’ai Chi is the best-known form of this art, although the version I was reading about had to do with walking – which, according to the expert author, is much more difficult than standard navel-gazing and other types of ommm meditation. Now, wait for it, there is “movie meditation.” As Long Duan in this, his first film, stares off at eternity, lips reminding you of Tiger Woods’ lips, your eyes must go soft. Wine, beer, or a big bong will help. The film’s music is soft, minor key, sufficiently western to encourage the odd daydream.

3. Conjure with the life questions that occur to you – economic, social, political, legal – as Xiaoshuai Wang lays out a slice of the world for your consideration. A few possible points to ponder:

The child is an American citizen visiting China. The American legal system has forbidden Er Di from spending time with his son. The local cadres think it proper to enforce this ruling. However, Er Di’s father reminds him of heaven’s mandate, which is that a father should be with his son. Er Di’s friends point out that after all, they are in China, not in the U.S. Er Di’s proper action vis a vis his son?

The girlfriend says to Er Di, “You’re supposed to look better. You’ve been to the U.S.” Does she have a point?

Er Di’s friends are leaving Fujian for Canton, Shanghai, and other urban centers where jobs can be found, or are stowing away like he did. Should he remain with the family, helping with the struggling family business in a depressed area, or go with his friends to Chinese boom centers, or return to America illegally?

And what’s your take on illegal immigration? Recently I drove down to 5th and Main and picked up a man to help me clean out my gutters. While we worked, we spoke in Spanish. I asked him how he got to the U.S. from Guatemala. “I walked,” he said. He started out with his family’s savings and by the time he crossed the border into the U.S., he had spent all of it on bribes. Now, he lives in a small apartment with a group of other men like himself and sends whatever he makes back to his family. In Guatemala he had been a welder but there was no work. Now he is doing casual day labor off the street corner. Should I report him instead of hiring him?

Meanwhile, the Hershey’s plant in Oakdale, California, closed this week. Moved to Mexico. The plant workers are now jobless, out in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley with no jobs anywhere near them.

And I noticed that a farm in the next county just moved lock, stock, and barrel to Mexico because there is a severe shortage of field workers around here this season. They were scared off. Plus, more and more field workers are switching to city work, as it pays better. Another farm is using inmates from a nearby prison.

Half my co-workers live in India.

In the film, Wang represents the local Chinese government as helpless and/or oblivious to the plight of the workers, while on television during the film, commentators speculate that China’s entry into the WTO will bring a better life.

The final scenes in the movie make it clear just how hard it is going to be for Er Di and his girlfriend to return to the U.S. As they sat belowdecks in a scow, waiting to endure the suffering that is to come, the movie finally got to me. In general, I take it as a given that the world is going to hell, but most of the time I manage to ignore that fact. Once in a while, however, a movie comes along that rubs my nose in it.

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