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Looking Up: A Taste of Chinese Cinema

We took the high speed train back from Dali two days ago. We will start our homestays shortly but are currently on our way to 楚雄 (Chu Xiong) for the annual fire festival where we will spend our weekend. Last night, after trying out a few ISP (independent study project) options such as martial arts, studying tea ceremonies, and learning to play the guqin, we went to a large mall. After much deliberation, we decided to eat at a sushi restaurant. Despite being in a fairly landlocked region of China, the sushi was not bad and we enjoyed our meal. For some reason we were given two dishes of “mystery sushi” that were covered in a pink substance. We had no idea what lay before our eyes and had not seen this item on the menu. After our first few hesitant bites we discovered that the concoction of pork floss, imitation crab and cucumber all covered in pink sugar and with a dollop of mayonnaise was quite enjoyable. Many members of the group feel that what we ate could not possibly be sushi, but it came wrapped in rice and seaweed.

Our main purpose in the mall was to go to the movie theatre and watch Looking Up, which had a 9.5/10 rating on the Chinese version of IMDB. We were intrigued by its epic and came in expecting a space drama in which intrepid Chinese astronauts manage to save the earth against impossible odds while battling the dangers of space. Instead, we watched a two hour and forty-minute film of an astronaut reminiscing about the valuable lessons his father taught him when he was young, the importance of succeeding in school, and the necessity of integrity.

We were late to the film and entered to a scene of a mother and her son visiting his dad in prison, where he’s signing divorce papers and discussing a blown up bridge. The son resists leaving his father until his dad promises to take a spaceship home and challenges his son to a race. After a montage of prison labor, we watch as the father is released and teaches his son (who’s struggling in China’s school system to succeed at rote memorization) how to think creatively. We see the kid escape from a flood by putting these skills into practice and building a raft. And the audience is rewarded with the predictable rise of the son from the bottom of his class to first. By the end, the son, now an astronaut, manages to fix a broken rocket and return back to China. This victorious ending is accompanied with a montage of celebration: from the stadiums of Beijing, to the aerospace HQ and to the nomads of Tibet, crowds all cheer at our protagonists return. The entire nation of China has achieved great feats through the education of its youth and the prowess of its engineers.

However, the movie, either by product of us reading poorly translated subtitles, or by the juxtaposition of serious scenes with unintentional slapstick comedy was supremely funny to us. A few moments stuck out in particular: the son, repairing the spaceship, decides to dramatically toss his safety tether out into space for no apparent reason other than heightening tension. He then clumsily, and with his face obviously edited onto a CGI spacesuit, bashes around the outside of the spaceship before tapping a broken piece of plastic back into place and declaring that the mission has been saved.

Earlier in the film, after the students of the boarding school finish the Gao Kao (China’s college entrance exam) and are celebrating by tossing the pages of their textbooks into the school’s main square, we see an unkempt twenty-something jumping around the shredded papers flying through the air. The dad declares gravely that everybody knows that man is the principal’s adopted son. We see a flashback of the same son failing a test in high school and then falling face first off a building, only to turn instantly, and unharmed, from a manicured schoolboy into a homeless man who’s then dragged off campus by security guards in the suddenly pouring rain. This storyline never pops up again, and the son is never mentioned.

The film ends with the estranged father telling his heroic son “that was a cool trick, I’d like to see it again.” The screen freezes, and the words: “For fathers, for sons” flash in white on the screen. The whole theater erupted in applause, leaving us quite confused.