Review: Changfeng Town (2019)

A bird is perched on the bird-stand dangling precariously on strings. Murmuring; the mischievous children hide behind an aged brick wall with slingshots in hand. It is a recurring game they play, flinging projectiles till the bird-stand is hit and swaying. Of course, the children don’t really mean anything by it, it is merely a game. A way to pass the time in their little isolated town.

We are at first introduced to a young delinquent named Redhead, nicknamed after his dyed red hair. Seemingly aimless, and inactive in the pursuit of his goals, we follow him as he wanders town, going through his life’s routine. From playing pranks with a group of mischievous children to visiting his mother in the dentist’s office for money to visiting the cinema to pursue his love for the beautiful cinema ticket-seller. Following him and seeing his routine, it becomes clear that there isn’t really much to do here in Changfeng Town.

There is the cinema, there is a dentist’s office, there is a bar, there is a school, there are shops and there are houses. People here all appear to know each other, and gossip seems to travel faster than wildfire. Eventually, we are forced to part ways with Redhead and the story that we follow changes. Now it’s the dentist and his son’s story. This repeatedly happens throughout the film, but one thing remains consistent, all these stories are of the residents of this town, we won’t follow them anywhere else but here in Changfeng Town.

The film Changfeng Town is not about any single individual, but about the eponymous Changfeng Town and it’s few but many townsfolk. Instead of a single tightly constructed narrative typically found in most films, we are offered here vignettes of the town residents’ lives and given the opportunity to witness the tiny secrets and burdens that they may carry. The town's dentist, the crippled handyman, the aspiring young poet, and the few many of the town’s inhabitants living their lives, weaving in and out between the vignettes that we are let to see. These stories may not be particularly exciting, after all, neither the world nor town are really at stake here. These are relatively mundane things - a gossip session in a tailor store, a dentist bringing his son to buy soda, a cinema ticket-seller hoping for her crush to show up. Perhaps a little uneventful, but never boring to watch. Much thanks to the wonderful and realised performances, and director Wang Jing’s sensitive direction that brings out the humanity in the stories and never over sentimentalises the drama.

Watching Changfeng Town is a soothing experience, it brings to mind a sense of nostalgia, the simpler times in childhood. Perhaps it is the nature of where the film is set in, the rural set design of the old and worn, beautiful in its imperfection and age and the absence of the things moving quickly that one might find in the city. (Even the occasional shot of an airplane flying across the skies seem to be moving slow.) The characters here let to breathe and follow through their daily routines, things clearly feel to be going at a slower pace.

Still, the countryside lifestyle is not idealised. Even in Changfeng Town, isolated and far from the city, the bitterness and flawed nature of human life take root. Lust and infidelity occur, the adults love their gossip which in turn causes them to ostracise others, and sometimes people just leave and never return. Acknowledged equally are the things pleasant and unpleasant.

By the end, all things come to the end. Though the story in the film tells the stories of multiple characters, it is clear that the perspective is from one particular mischievous boy who is now older and recounting his experiences through voice-over narration. His narration not only lends a nostalgic tone, but it also makes us aware of the passage of time. It’s an important element in Changfeng Town. In all the stories told, one thing remains consistent. All the characters end up changed one way or another as time continues on. Seasons change the same as people, their relationships and their circumstances do. Nothing is of permanence.

If there is one thing I took away watching the film, it’s that we may all come, go and change, but at least the memories remain.

Changfeng Town had its international premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in 2019.

Review by Timothy Ong
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