The financial crisis in 2008 has hit mainland China hard. Cities that once thrived and drew in workers from rural villages are closing their doors, pawning machinery to pay their employees their final checks. They now stand desolate in the night; a concrete graveyard of failed commercial enterprise. Business owners still left with a company to operate bribe each other in hopes of landing remaining contracts. At the bottom of this heap of commercial catastrophe sit Zhang Xiaojun and his friend Dahong. Both came from the same village in hopes of making it rich in the city, yet both now sit on empty streets, smoking cigarettes and updating each other on who from the old days is living the dream. Zhang is a disenfranchised college graduate with a good heart who just wants to go back home and work on the family farm. Dahong conceives crackpot schemes to get rich quick. On the day Zhang is to leave the city a series of events are drawn together that night at a local teahouse up on a hill.
The animation style of Piercing 1 is its own contradiction. Photorealistic backgrounds clash with character designs that can be best described as Mike Judge's early work. Key to the message is this visual opulence, the glimpses of capitalism, as western store chains dot the landscape, against the rawness of the lines of our suffering and disenfranchised pair. Director Jian Liu is one of China`s active participants in Gaudy Art, a style that emerged in China in the 1990s as artistic expressionism against the pervasiveness of consumerism. So it would be fitting that this artistic form is utilized in a film critical of the pursuit of wealth and fortune. Jian Liu`s film is highly critical of corruption within both the justice system and the business world. But I also find it fitting as I feel the character designs are also representative of either their sufferings or moral ugliness.
And near the end as the lines of fate intertwine one cannot help but think about the works of Joel and Ethan Coen. As all the players converge on this one teahouse those absurdist twists of early Coen films find new life in these crudely drawn characters. Piercing I is an eerily quiet film, mostly void of soundtrack save for a club scene, perhaps also to amplify the lifeless city. Getting over its crude animation style and passive pace is key to see it through to the end and enjoy the Coen-easque ending. Piercing I is not animation for entertainments sake but a critical response to a burgeoning nation unable to separate itself from a financial crisis - perhaps, again, a call for nationalism and self reliance to take prominence in the nation. One can only speculate.
Piercing I will screen on Saturday November 12th at 10:30 PM at THE ROYAL