Since my only previous encounter with the work of writer-director Zhang Yang has been his last film, Shower (1999), an overly sentimental, comic and very popular movie, Quitting comes as quite a surprise, being as dark and experimental as its predecessor was cozy and predictable. It’s the true story of a young actor named Jia Hongsheng (who plays himself) and his struggle with drug addiction. The title refers to both kicking the habit and temporarily quitting your life in the process. And while there’s not much new in the addiction angle, there’s much of interest in the film’s depiction of Western pop culture’s incursion into modern China.
Jia achieved popularity in the ’80s playing anti-heroes in Chinese B-movies, but it was during a stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman, directed by Yang, that he was first introduced to drugs (smoking heroin is the buzz of choice). The film opens during one of his unsuccessful attempts at staying sober. His parents, provincial actors, have moved to Beijing, to live with their son during this crucial period.
The family dynamic is not encouraging; father is a borderline alcoholic and mom is ineffectual. Jia lapses back into his habit, his fantasies fueled by classic rock like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, but most of all the Beatles and their “lead singer” (as he informs his father), John Lennon. His fascination with Lennon is strong enough for him to cultivate a Lennon-
esque appearance and finally to sink into a delusional state, believing Lennon to be his real father. Next stop: the local asylum.
The film specifically links Jia’s drug use with a more existential crisis — he’s a “what does it all mean?” kind of guy — and his interest in Western pop is less hedonistic than philosophical. (The film is almost worth seeing just to find out what happens when Beatle lyrics are translated into Chinese and then back into English subtitles; it took me awhile to figure out that “Take It Naturally” was “Let It Be.”)
Yang tells his story with a combination of realism and intentional staginess, and his inventiveness adds a great deal to the familiar tale of generational gaps and cultural clashes.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.