Director: Zeqiang Liu
Writer: Zeqiang Liu
Cast: Xinyu Wang (Jie), Shang Jiang (Bin), Jia Zhen (Ya)
Running time: 17mins
A few weeks ago, in my review of Walker, I noted some of the key challenges of reviewing Chinese cinema, from my seat as a critic in the Western world. My lack of contextual knowledge about the nation’s culture and social norms made it very difficult for me to find meaning in a documentary without words or narrative structure.
Zeqiang Liu’s film Flip is the polar opposite of this – and yet it has somehow left me with even fewer nice things to say. Admittedly it still looks good – and for a film school production with a budget of $18,000, it really should – but its vapid, non-committal take on teenage melodrama offers us nothing worth watching, however impressive the quality of the footage is.
Jie (Xinyu Wang) is a living cliché – the school weakling, unwilling or unable to respond to others constantly belittling him verbally and physically. Nobody cares, except for a young girl, presumably from his class. Ya (Jia Zhen – who, of all the actors, comes out of this with the most credit) intervenes when her ex-boyfriend Bin (Shang Jiang) is ‘playing a joke’ on Jie – the ‘joke’ is punching and kicking him in the face – before the pair run off to an apparently secluded spot on the docks.
OK, we think, this is the moment where Jie comes into his own. He must have some kind of wit or charm about him that we can buy into, that can help us care what happens to him. That sort of manifests. But not in a way we can meaningfully connect to.
While Jie does his best to ignore Ya, she professes her love for him. Without another word, he walks silently from the scene, disappearing up a flight of steps to the right. What can only be about 10 seconds passes, without any cuts in editing or additional establishing shots to show the passage of time, and he returns from a different flight of stairs, with a gift for her. A glass paperweight. It just so happens to be Ya’s birthday apparently, and nobody else even thought to give her a gift.
Reading that back to myself, perhaps Ya is so into Jie because he is a clairvoyant, time-travelling magician. It’s unlikely that Zeqiang Liu’s script intended such a reading though, so I have to take issue with the fact their editing does nothing to show us that this is a later point in the day, and their story does nothing to flag up that it is Ya’s birthday before this point, or to establish their prior relationship in a way that explains how only he has remembered that.
Furthermore, what exactly is Jie’s great charm here? A purely materialistic one – lacking any kind of effort or imagination on the writer’s part. Going out and buying things is not much of a personality trait – and especially not a personality trait that is likely to get us to side with him after the following scene.
The brutish Bin and his gang re-emerge from the back of the dock. They pursue the couple, eventually trapping them beneath a bridge. Bin is determined that Ya will take him back, and becomes increasingly hostile towards her when she turns him down. Jie, noticing his usual tormentors are now focused on a different target, makes his exit – flouncing away from the scene in an embarrassingly exaggerated fashion, which I imagine must have been egged on by the director asking specifically for him to run ‘as nerdily as humanly possible’.
I am still unsure exactly what we are supposed to be feeling here. I suspect it is supposed to be pity for the boy who was on the brink of being loved having that snatched away instantly. But beyond sniggering at the character’s floppy gait, the only emotion I felt was contempt for the individual abandoning the one person who had shown him kindness, as it is heavily implied that she is about to be assaulted.
After an amount of time that seems longer than him ‘nipping to the shops to buy a paperweight’, he does return to the scene, armed with the most pathetic twig he could find as a weapon, and is immediately captured. Ya is nowhere to be scene – and whatever happened to her in the interim is never addressed. However, it seems very likely that the film was about to do its very worst to her, and either bottled it when a teacher interjected, or simply could not figure out a way to film it without making everyone intensely uncomfortable, so gave up.
Now the writer decides to hand Jie his character arc, despite him having returned too late. Not when he could have done something to actually help, but when he can do something to make himself feel better about it. Challenging Bin to a one-on-one fight, he is comprehensively beaten, flailing limp-wristed at the bully who eventually sends him tumbling down a flight of steps. It is there he finds a shard of the paperweight – smashed possibly to symbolise the horrors Ya went through in his absence. As the bully approaches to attack again, Jie uses the shard to slash and bludgeon him until he stops moving.
Honestly, it might have been better if the film just ended here. Zeqiang Liu decides to try and eat their cake and have it too, though. Because as much as they want this to be a horrible, brutal film, they also want it to fulfil the criteria of a stale teen love story. So, Ya re-emerges, apparently completely unscathed. As Ya appears to forgive Jie for legging it in her time of need, the couple embrace – and the credits roll to one of the worst (and most utterly misplaced) renditions of AC/DC’s Back in Black you will ever hear.
What on Earth did we just sit through, and why? If this was a group of students simply hoping to experiment with different camera techniques (some effective hand-held shots during combat sequences, for example), that might be a valid learning experience. But why would they even try and handle some of the hefty issues seemingly on the table, if they had so little interest in them compared to the technical experience they were getting? Why bother with a love story? Why release this on an unsuspecting public? Whatever the answers, this is not a case of anything being lost in translation; these are conventions and tropes I am all too aware of and bored by – but worse than that, every single one of them was delivered poorly.