Film - Talking about a revolution

Philip Kerr on a bleak and unforgiving portrait of rural life in modern China

For a while, as a child, I was obliged to live in East Kilbride, a Scottish new town that is as grim as a murder hunt on Saddleworth Moor; and before that, in Edinburgh's Broomhouse district, which, even on a sunny day during August's International Festival, looks every bit as ghastly as the face of a hanged Ralph Nickleby. But at the time I knew no other and was happy, for were there not - as my Sunday school teachers were wont to tell me - others much worse off than me? Actually, I used to wonder where these others lived, and over the years I have been compiling an unofficial list of places in the world that are indeed worse than East Kilbride or Broomhouse. On the evidence of Platform, a new film by Jia Zhang-Ke, Fenyang, a town near the Yellow River in the Chinese province of Shanxi -which has an appropriately lavatorial ring to it - just got added to my list.

Platform takes place between 1979 and 1989, a period of wide-ranging reform in the People's Republic of China, when Revolutionary Harry met Consumer Sally. The action - using the word in its purely filmic sense for, in truth, not much happens in this 155-minute movie - follows the aspirations and inevitable disappointments of an official theatrical troupe who perform politically correct musicals to the bemused peasantry in the surrounding district. Think of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum without the laughs, and in Chinese, and about five times as long, and you'll begin to have an idea of what this film is like.

The film takes its title from what one is asked to believe was a bestselling pop song of the period, although after hearing it several times I myself formed the impression that Simon Cowell - he's the Nasty Nick figure in Pop Idol - would probably have told the song's singer and composer to stick to waiting tables, or some such sensationally inappropriate comment. Quite frankly, I have heard better Chinese songs while waiting on the telephone line to my local Good Earth takeaway. I racked my brain for a comparable British filmic endeavour, and decided that it would be like basing a film on the Brotherhood of Man's breezy 1976 Eurovision-winning hit, "Save Your Kisses For Me".

For much of the time, Tsu Minliang and his friends lean on the crumbling city walls of Fenyang, debate whether or not they should become lovers, smoke like suicidal beagles and generally look pretty miserable with their lot in life, which is hardly surprising since everything they do is touched by the dead hand of the Chinese Communist Party. The landscape looks as bleak and unforgiving as Mao's Big Brother portrait, and a wind blowing down what passes for the town's main street stirs not a hundred cherry blossoms but instead a few rat turds and the masonry dust of some disintegrating brickwork.

Pauses in the subtitled dialogue are not so much pregnant as gestated - by an elephant - and there is more than one occasion when, no one on screen at all, the camera stays focused on a section of brick wall or a badly weathered window-frame. (Compared to this, Wim Wenders looks like Jan de Bont.) When I was a boy my politically minded father used to subscribe to a magazine called China Reconstructs; judging by the dilapidated look of the buildings in this film, not very much got done. It's all a million miles away from the forbidden city of The Last Emperor or the balletic kung fu of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

And yet Platform is not without merit, and I recommend it not because I think it is a good film, but because I think it probably represents a fairly true-to-life picture of rural life in modern China. This is hardly the socialist paradise that was envisaged by Mao Zedong. The lives of the leading characters portrayed in this film are sterile and creatively unfulfilled. People - especially Chinese officials - are arbitrary and rude. The landscape looks hostile and uninviting. In short, there is nothing here that looks at all flattering to the Chinese Communist Party, and one is led to the conclusion that people seem to be no better off than they were before the revolution. Indeed, being entirely without hope of much improvement in their lot, the protagonists, desperate to embrace things western - even the crappiest music - look much worse off.

All of which makes it seem a little surprising that a repressive totalitarian regime - largely unreformed since Tiananmen Square - allows a film like this to be made, and I came out of the cinema reminded of what Doctor Johnson once said about a woman's preaching being like a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Platform (15) is on release at selected cinemas nationwide