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Locarno: Why Film Is the Ideal Medium For Exploring Social Problems

Several recent films shine light on problems from around the world in smart and engaging ways.

Jia Jhang-ke’s “The Hedonists”

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists.

While Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” was surprisingly awarded the Palme d’Or this May, many critics slammed the film (and Cannes judges) for its blunt portrayal of the disenfranchised worker. Few audiences dig being preached at, and Loach’s politics were seen to trump its storytelling. Regardless of how mawkish one may find Loach’s alleged swan song, his concern for a 59-year-old ex-carpenter from Newcastle battling to stay on welfare connected with the George Miller-led jury, highlighting the resonance of Loach’s timely social critique.

It should be no surprise then that the jobless were frequent fixtures at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival, portrayed by filmmakers from far-flung locations. In particular, two new and excellent shorts—“The Hedonists” by Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, and “The Hunchback,” a collaboration between Portuguese-American upstart Gabriel Abrantes and English aesthete Ben Rivers—looked at the life of the unemployed, transcending their filmmakers’ singular perspectives as effectively as Loach, and scoring some laughs along the way.

Because cinema is an empathy machine, it’s the medium of choice to impart social messages. Chaplin’s Tramp presented the struggles of the Great Depression with a pair of baggy pants and a waddle, and a century later Jia’s latest captures the flipside of capitalism with a trio of bumbling, recently unemployed middle-aged men squashed onto a single motorbike, on the Quixotic quest for a new job.

The Hedonists is vibrant, gorgeously shot (by cinematographer Yu Likwai), and gently tragic. “Socialism is not about making money while you sleep,” harangues the Shanxi coal mine boss to the security guard caught sleeping on the job when he fires him, as economic downturns see more workers’ livelihoods cut. “It’s cheaper to import coal than produce it ourselves,” shrugs the boss, before offering the workers redundancy packages of braised pork, in one of the film’s many deftly played moments of ironic social commentary.

The short may appear hyper-specific to Fenyang—Jia’s rural hometown, which recurs from his debut, “Xiao Wu,” through his latest feature, “Mountains May Depart”but, as ever in Jia’s work, Fenyang is a microcosm of the larger changes happening across China (and the world) following the country’s embrace of globalisation and economic boom. This allegorical quality is emphasised with drone cameras gifting sweeping aerial views of the town.

In contrast to the sloth-paced realist portraits that defined Jia’s early output (“Xiao Wu,” “Platform,” “Still Life”), “The Hedonists” swerves marvelously into the absurd, embracing the power of laughter to transcend cultural boundaries, and even seeing Jia reprise his deadpan gangster role from “A Touch of Sin” when the trio (Jia regulars Han Sanming, Liang Jingdong, and newcomer Yuan Wenqian) audition for positions as a bodyguard for “Boss Jia.” “The Hedonists” is hands down the funniest 26 minutes of Jia’s 20-year career (perhaps thanks to the co-writing credit of his regular actor and wife, Zhao Tao).

Keeping up the meta playfulness, the trio are hired to perform in the new Jia Village’s Shanxi Flatland, a 50-acre cultural theme park (recalling the hyperreal setting of “The World”). They emerge exuberantly dressed in colourful Qing dynasty costumes: the dopey grin of Han Sanming with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip is indelible, and Jingdong, playing the Emperor, is unable to keep a straight face. Instead of the suffering that drives Loach’s drama, Jia inverts the narrative of the unemployed and, in his own personal playground, the jobseekers become (at least temporarily) bigger and freer than their past position allowed.

Screening alongside “The Hedonists” in the Locarno program, “The Hunchback” is an equally unique 29-minute sci-fi riff on employment, adapting a story from the Arabian Nights. Mixing the salaciousness of Abrantes with the dystopian leanings of Rivers, “The Hunchback” conjures a “reintegration program” run by Dalaya, a mega-corporation that returns employees to the “productive standards expected” of them via creepy team bonding role-play.

Echoing contemporary dystopian think-films such as “High Rise” and “The Lobster,” “The Hunchback” was shot in Portugal but builds its own convincing, CGI-layered world on top, as an arena in which to play out its politics. Like all good sci-fi, Dalaya exists everywhere and nowhere.

While protagonist Timmi is a company employee, his team visits the Dalaya retreat and he is allocated the character of The Hunchback. “The Hunchback is a wild-card character. He has no job and is a jokester,” narrates the simulation software as Timmi starts popping the prescribed pills. Before our eyes, he physically transforms and bounds like an animal into the immersive medieval village VR, free to move and act and think in primal ways that will reconnect him with “outmoded human emotions”. In the future, even leisure time will be strictly commodified, Abrantes and Rivers suggest. Their imaginative, non-linear plot features wenches, wolves, reality TV-style interviews, and a splashy B-movie decapitation. Heads literally roll in this bizarro future-medieval nightmare.

And so “The Hedonists” and “The Hunchback” cheer for those out of work while condemning the systems—globalization, rampant capitalism, corporate culture—that have led their protagonists to such fates. Rather than miserablist traps, joblessness offers them radical freedom. The films don’t inspire class solidarity as immediately as Loach’s drama, but their carnival spaces worm into the brain, taking audiences on rollicking cinematic adventures that stick it to the man and linger long past their brief running times.

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