When the world comes crashing down, will you run away?
Despite its English name, The Fall, Director Zhou Lidong’s debut feature film is not about the snowballing debt, the broken relationships, or the courtroom struggles that usually follow the decline of a corporation. In fact, it shields the audience from actually seeing the aftermath of business struggles, and instead let us view the reality for what it is: contemporary metropolitan China.
For much of the movie, which is loosely based on Zhou’s personal life working as a blue-collar worker, a translator, and then as a small business owner, nothing much happens. The viewers see protagonist Lin’s (portrayed by Zhou) middle-class lifestyle juxtaposed with his reserved personality, hinting at a modest upbringing. The viewers also see an absence of family love from his interaction with his teenage son and his separated wife. There are no fight scenes and no nudity. Zhou’s style is deadpan, with stationary shots and ellipses used sparingly à la Yasujiro Ozu, giving the viewers a very objective and matter-of-fact presentation of the subtleties of living in urban China.
As a first-generation Chinese immigrant and someone who has experienced Beijing, a lot of the exoticism was lost on me. At the same time, it is refreshing to see the film tackle themes such as the general disobedience of rules — in multiple scenes, characters disobey parking signs — all very common in China. The characters are living contradictions: The son takes a college entrance exam half-heartedly while his parents prepare money to send him off to university in the United States. Even Lin’s mistress has another man of her own. The manager hired by Lin quits halfway through the film. No characters seem fully committed to anything that they do. And that, quick frankly, is also the reality of modern China.
In one scene in the film, when Lin and his friends go to dinner, they speak in a mix of English and Chinese. The waitresses whisper to each other, “Are they foreigners?” “No, they are all just pretentious domestic fakes.” In the scene that immediately follows, Lin is driving with his mistress in his imported BMW. He criticizes his mistress for lying to his friends about her age, calling the behaviour “fake confidence.” Zhou goes out of his way to drive home the idea that there is a persistent fakeness in urban China that makes every interaction insincere.
The cinematography of the Fall is simple but calculated. Zhou makes sure to show enough surroundings to give a sense of location. The result is that the viewers are always aware of the atmosphere over the individuals inside the scene. At the end of the movie, the viewers will revisit elements of early scenes that seemed insignificant, and gain a deeper appreciation for the script.
So what exactly “Falls” in this movie? As it turns out, it is everything except for the protagonist. The Fall is an examination of the life of one of many Lin-like urban middle-class men in China. The environment feels alienating and disorganized, but the Lins persevere. Through the resilience of Lin, the Fall projects an optimistic message of life in China: Nothing really goes up, but nothing really falls down either. You will get through. It will be OK.