Huang Jianxin's THE BLACK CANNON INCIDENT (1985) review

Contributor; Derby, England
Huang Jianxin's THE BLACK CANNON INCIDENT (1985) review

(Though he's now (indirectly) best known in the West for The Founding of a Republic making the PRC very large sums of money, director Huang Jianxin remains one of Chinese cinema's best-kept secrets. In the hope of pointing out he's done quite a bit more than co-direct one of the highest profile works of propaganda ever conceived, here's some of his work that deserves more attention.)

If a film gets touted as a pointed satire of Chinese bureaucracy the average Western cinephile tends to expect some scathing, no-holds-barred attack on the Communist administration, perhaps where the director was kicked out of the country in disgrace and blacklisted for decades afterwards. Not always the case; where many of his contemporaries in the famed Fifth Generation of directors ran into one controversy after another, Huang Jianxin's 1985 debut The Black Cannon Incident kickstarted his career as one of the foremost contemporary storytellers on the mainland - despite the fact (in the right light) it represents as biting a critique of the PRC as could be imagined.

Everything in the film basically relies on the idiot effect, where one simple misunderstanding could be resolved in seconds if the protagonists would all just open up. Zhao, the humble, unassuming lead is a mining engineer who also happens to be fluent in German and acts as an interpreter for Hans, the visiting expert helping with the company's current project. As long-standing friends the two men keep in touch outside work, and Zhao inadvertently attracts the attention of the authorities when he sends Hans a telegram asking for help in finding a missing chess piece - the 'black cannon' of the title.

The local party chief is convinced something underhand must be going on - the unfortunate Zhao is far from an ideal party member and he's also in cahoots with a foreign national. Just to be on the safe side they yank him from his post and have him reassigned.

Zhao is distressed, but happy enough to get on with his new role - only the party committee soon discover his replacement is less than up to the job of translating technical jargon from German to Chinese. No-one's going to tell the irate Hans his friend is under surveillance, much less Zhao himself, so everyone involved ends up chasing their tails in the hope the situation will just sort itself out - yet unfortunately this proves not to be the case.

The Black Cannon Incident is a strange film, viewed in hindsight; unbelievably dry, with the humour mostly observational and sometimes painfully restrained. Nothing happens per se. People talk in circles and much of the plot or character development hinges on what remains unsaid.

Huang Jianxin's genius, though, stems in part from his ability to relate the most didactic storylines without beating the audience over the head. Whatever messages his films convey are neither rendered insultingly obvious (even though the gist of the narrative might well be readily apparent) nor are they presented as solely Chinese folly.

Paranoia and suspicion are given decidedly short shrift, but no-one ends up as either a tool of state oppression or an everyman yearning to be free. Zhao is genuinely happy given the opportunity to help out another area of the project, for all he's been dumped there in a tangle of red tape. Hans may be justifiably frustrated but he's patronising and overbearing with it. And yes, ultimately the film could be over in minutes if people would just talk to each other, but at the same time no-one ends up entirely blameless. 'You make everything too complicated,' the chairman tells the weary, cynical party chief. 'You make it too simple,' she tells him.

Admittedly it doesn't age too well. The cast are wonderfully, fantastically naturalistic, particularly Liu Zhifeng as Zhao and veteran TV actor Gerhard Olschewski as Hans. Huang Jianxin's strengths do not extend to the imagery, however, and while the industrial backdrop serves as an appropriate backdrop to the changing times driving the narrative, the director's point-and-shoot approach comes across as matter-of-fact at best, anachronistic at worst. Again, it is also as dry as they come, with the lack of any overt visual hooks meaning many will dismiss the film as bland or unengaging - the viewer has to work to get the most out of it.

The depth is there, however; a mix of soap opera intrigue tempered with wry comedy and humanist detail; a film with a message (or messages), but one that encourages quiet contemplation over chest-beating about who might be right or wrong. It warrants significant reservations, but for those interested viewers willing to make some concessions (for a director just starting a career stretching over more than two decades and counting) The Black Cannon Incident still comes recommended.

The Black Cannon Incident

  • Jianxin Huang
  • Wei Li
  • Ming Gao
  • Zifeng Liu
  • Gerhard Olschewski
  • Fengliang Yang
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Jianxin HuangWei LiMing GaoZifeng LiuGerhard OlschewskiFengliang YangComedy

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You can buy the all-region English subtitled Chinese DVD of The Black Cannon Incident here.

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