Mirror Men

Another straightforward yet opaque and uncompromising piece of work, Quitting represents a great leap forward for Chinese director Zhang Yang—best known here for Shower, a sentimental tribute to humble pleasures and the healing power of aqua therapy.

Like the earlier film, Quitting is concerned both with generational conflict in the new China and questions of mental hygiene, but it's far less of a crowd-pleaser and more audacious in its strategy. The actor Jia Hongsheng appears as himself, along with family members, friends, and hospital inmates who are all similarly re-creating their actual roles in Jia's story. The star, who became famous playing tough guys in Chinese action movies of the early '90s (as well as the "suicide artist" in Wang Xiaoshuai's experimental Frozen), suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by his celebrity and the heroin habit he developed while playing a drag queen in Zhang's avant-garde stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.

A machine for inducing coincidence: from Mahagonny
photo: Courtesy Harry Smith Archives
A machine for inducing coincidence: from Mahagonny


A film by Harry Smith
September 13 through 22, at Anthology Film Archives

Directed by Zhang Yang
Written by Zhang and Huo Xin
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens September 13

When Quitting begins, Jia has already withdrawn from society to live with his sister in a sparsely furnished apartment dominated by images of John Lennon and Taxi Driver. His parents, both provincial actors, arrive in Beijing to care for him, but Jia is scarcely pleased to see them. He immediately picks a fight over their use of peasant "lard soap," although he does bond, after a fashion, with his father, who visits a music store to find records by "da bidus" and takes to drinking beer with his son under a highway cloverleaf. The hanging out that makes up much of Quitting is given weight by a combination of dramatizing music and frequent close-ups. The distanced quality is reinforced by the harmonious, symmetrical compositions. Alternately grueling and soporific, Quitting is a movie about addiction that demands the viewer also give something up.

Jia, a tall, bony presence—his hatchet face accentuated by his bizarre theatrical outfits—appears to be a self-medicating borderline case. (That the actor had his comeback as the tragic, love-addled motorcycle courier in Lou Ye's Suzhou River gives that already highly sedimented movie another level of subtext.) Increasingly stressed, Jia kicks in a TV set that broadcasts his image, bangs his head against the wall, insults a producer who telephones with the offer of a job, and begins developing a series of delusions involving John Lennon. After the most shocking scene—in which Jia smacks his father—the lights go up to reveal the apartment as a stage set in an empty auditorium. Presently, Jia's parents have him committed to a mental hospital with ultimately productive results. "The Soviets called it hysteria, the Chinese called it dementia," one inmate opines. It's not clear what Zhang would call Jia's condition, but he succeeds in dramatizing it.

To complete the week's trifecta of artistic integrity, the Walter Reade is opening a two-week Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective this Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth. Trained, supported, and banned by the Soviet film apparatus, Tarkovsky was at once that industry's greatest achievement and its most formidable reproach. His stature as an intractable visionary has only grown since his untimely death in 1986. The retro includes new 35mm prints of Tarkovsky's first feature, Ivan's Childhood (1962); his career-making historical epic, Andrei Rublev (1969); his sci-fi extravaganza, Solaris (1972); and his autobiographical masterpiece, The Mirror (1975). The latter three will be getting weeklong runs later this fall at Film Forum, but there is much to be said for savoring them in context—Tarkovsky has yet to become an adjective, but his worldview, already fully developed in Ivan's Childhood, was unique. His movies gave atmosphere a substance. You don't just watch them; they are places to inhabit.

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