Black Snow Review
Black Snow, the 1990 feature from Chinese ‘Fourth Generation’ filmmaker Xie Fei is a quiet, unassuming work. Shot with a palette that emphasises the cold blues of its chosen landscape and eschewing the use of a conventional score, it adopts few cinematic ‘tricks’ as a means of attracting attention to itself. Perhaps this why, outside of festival appearances (including its premiere at Berlin, where it won the Silver Bear), Black Snow remains little seen in the west. To the best of my knowledge it has received neither theatrical or television showings in the UK and as such Second Run’s new release represents the first time it has been made widely available to British audiences. Moreover, this is a film which deserves to be seen; reference to that quietness and unassuming nature was not meant as a criticism, but an observation of the two elements which really help Black Snow achieve its cumulative emotional force.
Essentially, Xie Fei and writer Liu Heng have created a character study. At Black Snow’s centre is Liu Huiquan (played by Jiang Wen), an ex-convict in his early twenties recently released back into society. The exact crime he committed and how long he served in prison are not immediately revealed, and even when Liu does make mention of them - three years for “fighting” which almost resulted in another man dying - there is never the complete sense that we are getting the entire truth. Indeed, Liu remains very much withdrawn from those around, though again the reasons remain sketchy. It could be argued that this is a mere character trait, or perhaps one that he picked up during his conviction. One thing that is certain is the fact that those around him never appear too keen to draw him out from himself; the prison term has made Liu effectively an outsider, shunned or barely acknowledged by old friends and family.
This latter element has prompted a number of commentators to view Black Snow as political allegory. In the accompanying booklet Shaoyi Sun notes how Xie “records sound bites of [Beijing] at the juncture of an earth shattering rebellion”, this rebellion being the student uprising of 1989 that culminated with the Tiananmen Square protests. Similarly, the changes which Liu finds all the more pronounced having existed outside of society for a number of years - the local factory having closed down, the death of a friend, the upcoming marriage of a neighbour with whom Liu had a close childhood connection - all point towards grander upheavals in China. (Tony Rayns in his review of this disc for Sight & Sound notes how such elements “shrewdly reflect the pace of social change in the years under Deng Xiaoping.”) Plus there is Liu himself, barely educated or so it would appear and as such an ineloquent figure, offering further indictment of life during the Cultural Revolution.
Yet whilst such political dimensions are undoubtedly key to Black Snow’s overall picture, they need not be off-putting to those with only scant knowledge of China’s recent history. First and foremost, this is a film about Liu and, by extension, a study in loneliness. Time and again we return to shots of him alone in his bed, emphasising his sexual frustration to go along with the bouts of violence and drunkenness we also pay witness to. Furthermore, given Black Snow’s quiet nature, oftentimes this is all we have to hold on to, thus accentuating the details further. The boredom is all part of the portrait (at one point one of Liu’s friends goes on a drunken rant about this very issue, noting how whether he has something or not the end result is always the same: “Why is everything so fucking boring?”) and having Jiang in the lead role helps substantially. Shouldering much of Black Snow’s narrative, Jiang (still best known in the UK for his performance in Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum) is fascinating to simply observe. His gestures and movement, or lack of as the case may be, carry enormous weight, delicately detailing Liu’s progress as tries to rehabilitate himself and reintegrate with society, not to mention the disillusionment in the face of setbacks and personal betrayals.
Of course, Xie’s shooting style aids Jiang as much as the actor aids Black Snow overall. As already noted there is no score to the film, thus highlighting the mundane nature of Liu’s existence through every listless exhalation of cigarette smoke or uncertain footstep. Similarly the harshness of that colour palette noted at the start of this review cannot help but accentuate the overriding bleakness. Xie does not always go for the expected ‘realism’ traits in his shooting methods (handheld camera, single takes, etc.). But he does so often enough - the opening scene, for example, which follows Liu from behind as he walks back to his old neighbourhood - to keep Black Snow grounded. More importantly, it is the breaks from such a style which hold the real significance. Amongst the very much male-dominated world of this film we find a young singer played by Lin Cheng. She performs sentimental songs at a local club and attracts Liu’s attentions. As he listens to the words - full of optimism and hope - Black Snow becomes more fanciful in its stylings: superimpositions, flashbacks to Liu’s more simple childhood, something more dreamlike than the harsh realities shown elsewhere. And it is this dream aspect which proves so essential; the hope and optimism is nothing more than a passing fancy, elements which Liu can only get caught up in as long as the songs last. They present nothing more than an empty promise, as Black Snow and its sense of entrapment so perfectly demonstrate.
Black Snow is getting its DVD premiere in the UK courtesy of Second Run. The dual-layered disc is encoded Region 0 and presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with optional English subtitles. The presentation, a new high definition transfer, is mostly excellent and certainly as good as we should expect. The image is wonderfully sharp and teeming with detail, whilst the colour palette captures that blue palette perfectly. The only imperfect is intermittent print damage (very moderate speckling at times, but nothing more than this), though note that Xie Fei has given his full approval. The soundtrack - in original mono spread over the front two channels - has been restored and comes across superbly. There are no signs of damage or hiss, just sharp dialogue and a more than able handling of Lin Cheng’s songs. The subtitle translation, meanwhile, is once again new to this release and demonstrates no discernible flaws. As Tony Rayns noted in his Sight & Sound review - and he really is somebody we can trust on such matters - Black Snow comes with “the best English subtitles the film has ever had.”
As for extras, the disc finds space for 33-minute filmed interview with Xie Fei plus there is the standard Second Run booklet, in this case containing a lengthy essay by Shaoyi Sun, Professor of Film and Media at Shanghai University. In both cases the emphasis is on Xie’s career overall. In his interview, the director discusses his life and career before the conversation switches to current Chinese cinema and the impact of digital and the internet. He makes for a fascinating speaker, full of enthusiasm for the new possibilities and keen to praise his fellow filmmakers. The booklet, on the other hand, looks for the similarities in Xie’s oeuvre, making it a valuable introduction to a director who has had little recognition in the UK in terms of his films getting widely screened or issued on disc. Indeed, it only serves to make Second Run’s forthcoming disc of Xie’s 1986 feature, A Girl from Hunan, all the more appealing.