A Look at “Mr. Six”
Guan Hu’s newest movie resonates with the Cultural Revolution generation, but the film has one fatal flaw.
As the new year of 2016 begins and we look back the past months of 2015, we see our world was not a peaceful place. Economic and environmental crises lingered in Europe and Asia. Violence was everywhere, killing, torture, terror attacks, war and floods of refugees were emerging in our daily lives. In China, man-made catastrophes came one after the other: the sinking Oriental Star river cruise on Yangzi River in Hubei Province on June 1 caused 442 deaths; the series of explosions at Tianjin Port took 173 lives and caused numerous injuries; the landslide of construction waste in Shenzhen on December 20, lead to high casualties. Parallel to the calamities was the notorious “human rights black hole,” which devoured dissidents and hundreds of lawyers. The summer assault to over 300 hundred human rights lawyers had not yet come to an end, and there are still several of them on the missing list.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
At the same time, the civil awakening is amazing in China. The movement of defending the civil rights of the common people can be traced back to 2000. The issues are widened from personal property and housing rights, to environmental damages through the industry, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The recent trial of Pu Zhiqiang, the civil rights lawyer, had a surprisingly mild result thanks to international intervention and the supporting protest masses. He received a three-year suspended prison sentence for his alleged crime of “inciting ethnic hatred,” not to forget that he was already 18 months behind the bar since the arrest in 2014. Under the same international pressure, the Beijing government has released the imprisoned journalist Gao Yu for medical parole and cut her sentence from seven to five years. These two cases show that the Xi-administration cannot ignore the public opinion from inside and outside of China.
While the power struggle is still in the spotlight — Xi’s fight against the remaining influences of his predecessor Jiang Zemin and his forces in the army is taking up most of his energy — he does not forget to conciliates his subjects with the entertaining film, Mr. Six. The film is a nostalgic drama about a middle aged street punk “lao pao er” (old canon, Beijing dialect, meaning “aged kingpin”), also called “Mr. Six.” The protagonist falls into a troublesome situation: his son was kidnapped by a group of rich street gangsters because he flirted with their girl. Mr. Six, showing as a man with spunk and a sense of justice, dared to resist to the local police pressure, and tried hard to rescue his son by borrowing money to pay the ransom. He did not inform the police as asked, he was a man who kept his promise.
Mr. Six reminds the audience of another popular writer of the 90s: Wang Shuo. Wang, born in 1958, grew up in living compounds of high cadres in Beijing. His parents were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Wang got his “education” in the street and learned survival technique from the other quasi-parentless youngsters. Later, he became a writer and created his hooligan style of writing, which reflects the chaotic social order in China in the late Mao-era. Like the sinologist Geremie Barme said, Wang Shuo was a product of the “liumang (hooligan) culture,” so it is very natural that his stereotypical protagonists, such as Baokang in Masters of Mischief (Wanzhu, 1987) Fang Yan in Playing for Thrills (Wanr jiushi xintiao 1989) are also the products of this “sardonic popular culture.” “It is a literature of escape and sublimation.”
Wang Shuo’s cool, sarcastic “living history and language” has attracted millions in the Cultural Revolution generation, many of whom missed the normal family lives and regular school education during their adolescence because of Mao’s political experiment. People identify with the street hustlers; those scum and good-for-nothing youth are heroes in his novel.
Wang Shuo’s novels were popular in the 1990s, but now the times have changed. The street punks have disappeared in Beijing’s hutong (alleys). Instead, the spoiled “second generation of the rich” have emerged in modern society. The 30-something screenwriter, Dong Runnian, created an antique hooligan Mr. Six to confront the rich youngsters who drag race with Ferraris and look down upon the poor and old. There is no doubt that the sympathy is on the side of old Mr. Six. Even the young leader was somehow moved by the pig-headed oldie.
The film was first shown at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival and released on December 24, 2015 in China. It seems that the old guy Six could touch the emotions of young and old. Within a short time, there have been many discussions and reviews about the film online. A nostalgic and sentimental atmosphere spread, yet the film has a fatal flaw: Mr. Six hands the document of his opponent’s banking to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the highest control mechanism of the CCP. With this act, the film knelt down to the Party Lord, and escaped censorship. This is an unspoken rule in China, and the famous online term “ni dong de” (you know, meaning there is no need to explain certain circumstances) can sum up the whole complex psychological and political phenomenon.