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By Joe Bendel. Like a put-upon Kafka character, San Bao has lost his voice. Life in go-go Beijing has not been kind to him. In relatively short succession, he lost his girlfriend, his dog, and his apartment. He really is not in the mood to talk, even as he silently forges unlikely new relationships. However, Zhang Yuan has plenty to say about the state of contemporary China in Beijing Flickers, which opens the 2013 Global Lens film series, once again launching in New York at MoMA, this Thursday.

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It is hard to say whether getting dumped hurts more than his dog running away. And while it means little to him emotionally, San Bao’s eviction leads to the immediate issue of homelessness. He sort-of kind-of solves the problem short-term, by chomping down on a glass during a drunken bender. Of course, that also leads to hospital bills. Ironically, this turns out to be a good thing. The bar’s singer, You Zi, held onto his cell phone for safekeeping. When reclaiming it, he is struck by her ethereal voice and beauty. Somehow, a circle of friends develops around the two psueudo-lovers, incorporating her roommates – San Bao’s buddy from home, and the female impersonator with whom he is crashing.

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Although not a musical per se, Flickers is like a Chinese version of Rent, in which dispossessed and Bohemian Beijingers band together to face the trials and tribulations of a highly stratified society. Much like his thematically similar Beijing Bastards, Zhang also includes plenty of music, including You Zi’s haunting signature number, further supporting the comparison.

Li Xinyun lights up the screen as You Zi.

It is doubtful very many Brooklyn hipsters could cut it in Zhang’s Beijing. On one hand, this is a predatory system of have’s callously exploiting the have-not’s. Yet, it is also a lawless environment, where the slightly less than stable San Bao periodically lashes out physically, with little fear of repercussions. It is like the worst of both worlds.

Granted, Flickers might sound grim (okay, it is grim), but Li Xinyun truly lights up the screen as You Zi. In addition to her distinctive look and sound, she brings dignified resiliency to the alt-torch-singer, rather than overly cute pluckiness. While she has far less screen time than the rest of the principals, Han Wenwen is also quite powerful as You Zi’s roommate Su Mo, giving the audience a bracing slap during the film’s one big jaw-dropper scene. As the more-silent-than-strong San Bao, Duan Bowen lends the film commendable cohesion, interacting with each member of the large ensemble with subtly different shades of either fierceness or sensitivity.

Although Zhang’s recent films have clearly been more pleasing to China’s popular audiences and government authorities, Flickers is very much a return to his in-your-face Bastards roots. Yet, the noir-ish style and seductive soundtrack make it a considerably more polished viewing experience. Basically, that is a win-win combo. Enthusiastically recommended for China watchers and aspiring bohemians, Beijing Flickers begins a week long run at MoMA this Thursday (1/10) as the opening selection of the year’s Global Lens (which also includes the highly notable Cairo 678).

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on January 7th, 2012 at 1:53pm.

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