Worsening employment prospects and a shrinking population have yielded a Chinese generation with an absurdly high concentration of parasite singles.
Independent filmmaker Lei Yong’s debut The Young Play Games, The Old Play Tai Chi tells the life of one such young man.
A Harsh Story
It’s hard to say when Sheep, a 31-year-old Beijinger, last held a job.
While he’s quick to defend his sloth as “waiting for the chance to achieve something great,” Sheep’s life primarily consists of sleeping, drinking and watching porn.
He and his father fight often. Sheep complains that his father failed to provide him with a comfortable life, while his father bemoans his son’s lack of income.
Sheep’s best friend is a thief named Bread, who frequently brings his other thieves to Sheep’s apartment in search of something they can swipe and hawk.
None of them has anything that could be considered a job.
Sheep’s daily excitement is stalking strange girls and scaring them. He does seem to care about one of them, but his story ends in tragedy.
“Sheep has many problems, but he’s not really a bad person,” said director Lei Yong. “His parents have plenty of their own issues.”
The family is designed as a common product of the nation’s family planning policy: one has created a generation ripe with single children who are spoiled until they break.
Although many young people go through a transition phase where they live off their parents, Sheep is an extreme example. His character seems to blend all the worst aspects of Don Quixote and writer Lu Xun’s character Ah Q – maybe with a bit of the Shameless thrown in just to make it weird.
He shouts at his father, blaming him for “destroying me” by failing to become a high-ranked government official or businessmen.
Even without a job or income he likes to brag and often asks his mother for money to treat his friends to dinner.
The film takes a brutal look at the human tendency to lie or complain when one is unable to face his shortcomings. Lei said he believes all viewers will find a few moments where they acted uncomfortably similar to Sheep.
The Young Play Games, The Old Play Tai Chi is Lei’s first film.
Born in 1974 in Shanxi Province, Lei got his start in media as an editor and reporter. He also wrote several short stories, published in Literature of the Yellow River.
Director Jia Zhangke’s film The Pickpocket was Lei’s primary inspiration.
“Before I saw that film in 2008, I thought cinema stories had little to do with me,” Lei said. “The world of commercial film is too unrealistic.”
But he soon realized film could be about things he or the average person knows or feels.
“My main disadvantage was a lack of basic filmmaking skills,” Lei said. “I had no experience in using a video camera, composing scenes or editing clips.”
His actors and actresses were all normal people rather than professionals.
“The friend I asked to play Sheep has been out of work for several years. I was also working as a freelancer. His story was something that resonated with both of us,” Lei said.
Other actors, such as Bread, were selected from migrant workers Lei met on the street. The actor who played Bread was very interested in the film and willing to act for free. He also rounded up several friends to be part of the production.
“Amateur actors and actresses are what I needed,” Lei said. He could not afford professionals, and the story of the film is much closer to the lives of normal people.
Lei said he wrote the script in a black notebook one week before shooting. He reworked the dialogue based on how the actors performed on the first day.
“Some of the original lines seemed too stiff and unnatural for the actors,” Lei said.
Lei is currently working on a new film Guarder, Guarder’s Friend, the Girlfriend of the Guarder’s Friend.
The film continues his trend of tackling the extremes of modern Chinese society with irony, criticism and wit.
The Young Play Games, The Old Play Tai Chi is available in full on the streaming video site Tudou.com.