Reviewed by: ewaffle
Summary: Bleakest House
Whatever the pleasures which may exist in Datong, which seems to be a city built from rubble, remain not only unknown to its citizens but to the audience as well. It is the kind of place that might make Ceausescu Romania look good. Young men, broke and without work, hang around in a storefront with a pool table and a few benches. The film focuses on two of them: Bin Bin and Xiao Ji and a young woman who crosses their path, the singer Qiao Qiao.
Xiao Ji lives with his father in a single room fitted with bunk beds, a television set and little else. Bin Bin and his mother have a slightly larger apartment although she hasnt been paid for six months. Xiao Jis father steals from him. Bin Bins mother is involved with the banned Fulan Gong movement. Couples check into cheap hotels in order to watch television. A man injured in a huge explosion that rocked their neighborhood--the neighborhood of Textile Mill--is left to suffer in a hallway until his daughter pulls together the payment for the past months insurance premium. Things in Datong are bleak and look to stay that way for a long time.
Disease, violence and casual brutality from criminals are the everyday lives of the three. They seem profoundly ignorant of anything besides U.S. and Chinese popular culture. They love Monkey King cartoons on TV and know the songs from Pulp Fiction. Qiao Qiao and Xiao Ji become a couple although he is slapped around by henchmen who work for her pimp/manager and they clearly have some erotic/emotional feelings for each other but generally their lives are affectless, depressing, destined to be short and filled with pain.
Bin Bin finds he has hepatitis when he is rejected for enlistment in the PLA, Qiao Qiao dons a garish wig to work as a prostitute in a cheap club--probably the only type of club that exists in Datong--and Xiao Ji, possibly a fugitive for an amateurish bank robbery that Bin Bin is arrested for, heads for Beijing.
One aspect of its score was particularly arresting--the chorus from the big first act party scene from Verdi's "La Traviata" (Noi siamo zingarelle) is heard several times including in the very first scene. A street singer who must have been played by a trained opera singer gets everything just wrong enough--tempo, key, pitch, even diction--so that it is both immediately recognizable and very strange. We hear and see him once again and there are a couple of instances when we hear a chorus and orchestra doing the piece.
"Unknown Pleasures" is not without artistry but I found it impossible to look beyond the blighted, hopeless lives of the characters.