Director: Jiaqian Bao
Writer: Jiaqian Bao
Cast: Feng Zhu, Zhou Dan, Yu Jiantao, Wei Zhiqiang, Li Aizhen
Running time: 25mins
As someone with a chronic lack of rhythm, and just as little musicality, the idea of music and dance being kinds of ‘universal language’ has always felt a little difficult to get my head round. But that has largely been from a perspective of trying to conform my body to the modes of dance that are common – there’s no genuineness about that, I’m not earnestly engaging with the music for better or worse, I’m just trying to get through the episode without taking anyone’s eye out.
For those who can allow themselves to let the music take hold of them, dance can help them to transcend their usual limitations. Through their movements, they can communicate wordlessly – with or without a partner – expressing themselves in an unguarded and authentic way that their verbal, conscious psyche might often fight against.
Jiaqian Bao’s charming short Shall we dance invites us into the lives of a man discovering this incredible world of rhythmic communication when he needs it most. We join Huxu (Feng Zhu) in his dilapidated apartment, struggling to record a voice message that he believes will serve as a suicide note – one which he seems unconvinced anyone will even bother listening to.
As he stammers and stalls, fumbling to find his voice, Feng Zhu’s performance is excellent – embodying the kind of communicator which actors generally spend their life trying not to be; someone who cannot get his lines out. The palpable exasperation in his face ratchets up with each frustrating failed recording – and just when it seems he has been pushed as far as he can get, fate intervenes.
A call from an old acquaintance sees Huxu badgered into one last job. It is not hard to see where some of his self-resentment might have taken root, because his work sees him paid to wordlessly shadow the partners of rich and paranoid men – most of whom are themselves cheating – and ensure they cannot meet with other men. It is a living which has made him complicit in preventing women all over the country from communicating with anyone, making friends, or finding any means of escaping from the misery of their sham marriages.
The final case takes Huxu and his camera to a ballroom venue, where his client’s wife is allegedly fraternising with men. Director of photography Zhang Jian’s cinematography comes into its own amid the warm, glowing lights of the club, and as a flurry of dancers circle each other. Amid them, the woman who is the intended target cuts a forlorn figure – and it soon becomes clear why. She loved to dance, she feels free from the hell waiting for her at home when she does, but nobody she dances with ever comes back – her husband having supposedly ‘dealt’ with them thanks to the likes of Huxu documenting the event.
When the pair inevitably get to know each other, Jiaqian Bao’s bittersweet script takes its time to sketch out two lonely souls, who find solace in each other for one brief moment in time. Huxu is careful to warn that he “cannot dance”, but what he soon learns is that in this context, opening himself up to bare his soul through movement is what matters, not looking graceful, and suddenly the man who opened the film without being able to communicate finds a new way to express himself. Whether the beautiful moment will lead to long-term salvation for either party is left up in the air by the film’s ending, but even in that context, those precious seconds where each of them felt seen and human have an emotional punch that will have audiences smiling through tears throughout the credits.
This is a heartfelt and accomplished piece of independent cinema, which examines the potential of art to bring people together, and to offer them an alternative to the cold alienation of their daily lives. Jiaqian Bao’s script pulls off a marvellous balancing act, avoiding sensationalising the story, while still managing to pack the story with emotional potency. Not just any cast could have pulled that off, though, and it would have been nice to get a more detailed cast list with this film, so that I could properly credit each performer for bringing this story to life.