quitting (2001)


director: zhang yang

jia hongsheng, jia fengsen, chai xiurong

Zhang Yang’s Quitting is based on the true story of Jia Hongsheng, a young actor whose career went off the rails in the mid-90s when he became a heroin addict. Zhang pushes the conceit a but further by not only having Hongsheng play himself, but also casting his parents - actors in a provincial theatre group - as themselves, as well as Hongsheng’s friends and the inmates of the asylum where he was committed after his addiction turned into psychosis.

While this sounds like Quitting should be a gritty, improvised piece of urban realism, it’s anything but - like much of the great “fourth wave” of Chinese cinema being released these days, it’s a rigorously controlled stylized of filmmaking. But departing from films like Platform and Beijing Bicycle, Zhang goes so far as to pull his camera back and reveal the film’s main setting - the family’s apartment in a Beijing high rise - as a stage set, with the fourth wall cut away and each character standing in a theatrical pool of light directly addressing the audience.

It could have been an unbearably arch, pretentious move, but for some reason it works as a sly acknowledgement of the artifice inherent in re-telling Hongsheng’s story. The young man’s addiction is pointedly presented as essential to his rebellion, a symptom of the explosion of western culture into China in the wake of political and economic reforms, but at no point does it take on the hectoring tone of anti-western propaganda.

Hongsheng, like millions of young Chinese, is in thrall to the mystique of the Beatles, and as he slips further into a drug-induced paranoia, he imagines himself as Lennon’s son. There’s a particularly clever bit where, being interviewed after his committment, he tells an asylum official to spell “Lennon” with the same characters as “Lenin” and “peasant”.

The young addict is also shown as painfully unlikeable, a typical kind of youthful junkie, whose rebellion is based on an attitude of unearned snobbery, a feeling of superiority over parents who he regards as peasants, and the deep insecurity of the provincial in the big city who feels he has to try harder than anyone to prove the authenticity of his anguish. It’s a rich, intelligent take on a painfully unsympathetic character, with a suitably ambiguous ending that leaves the value of Hongsheng’s rehabilitation up to the viewer.