It’s easy to feel validated at a film festival. Especially now, when popular culture is at its most guarded, ready to attack even the vaguest notions of something #problematic, it’s rare to see an arthouse movie that isn’t at least a little leftist, promoting liberal ideas to an adoring crowd of film junkies who already agree with those very values and can leave the cinema so roused by the projected ideology that they may not even care about technique or style. It’s about good things, so it must be good. I admit that I can be one of those viewers; sometimes, even the idea of a Hollywood movie being remotely anti-imperialist can stir feelings of euphoria in my gut. But as St. Vincent once tweeted (I’m also groaning at that phrase): “Making art about important things doesn’t make it important art.”
In Liu Jie’s new film Baby, the film I was initially asked to review, a young woman named Meng (Yang Mi), who works as a cleaner at a hospital, learns of a father who intends to let his newborn child die than attempt to treat its genetic disorder — the very same disorder that led to Meng’s abandonment as a child. What follows is an obsessive quest to save the child despite the advice of her friends, the walls of bureaucracy, and her own limited economic situation. All of which is to say that Baby is another in a long line of festival films, usually directed by men, about a series of tragedies befalling what is often a woman, shot almost entirely handheld, with barely any character definition beyond their miseries. Here, the film is centred around the grand issue of Chinese parental/child rights, but other common cases include gender transition (52 Tuesdays ), sex work (Utopia ), leprosy/class strife (Yomeddine ). Many films like and including Baby amount to little more than didactic and exploitative misery porn, but they critique their issue of choice, and so they are loved by a large amount of viewers, especially those on leftist film Twitter. It’s important to tweet praise of defiantly unproblematic art — maintains a good brand.
Watching Baby, I was struck by the force of its politics. I was not struck by much else about it. In my mind at least, politics are not art — they are a piece of the whole, and their goodness does not necessarily reflect the whole’s quality, and vice versa. Diving deep into the annals of exploitation cinema reveals a whole world of films whose usually horrific politics matter more for how they cohere or don’t cohere with the product around them. Many of the best of these outré genre exercises either possess a distinctly disturbing worldview or are comically muddled. For a superficially-related example, it’s hard to tell if Ted Post’s The Baby (1973) hates women, lesbians, men, the mentally ill, or none of them. But it’s that muddled agenda that makes its twist ending so shocking, upsetting, and effective — pulled from such a morass of conflicting hatreds that almost any chosen extension would appear surprising (for another film with fascinatingly muddled politics and a bummer ending, see Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell ).
All of this is not to say that issues like poverty (as seen in Capernaum ) and systemic misogyny (as seen in Her Job , which is an obscure example, but it’s the most recent and most egregious one I’ve seen) are not important — they are. And my privilege as a cis-het white guy definitely influences my exhaustion with films that position their politics over actual humanism, interesting complications, or even basic cinematic style. Still, being aware that my identity colours the way I consume art has not stopped my exhaustion. Whatever the failings and hypocrisies of 70s trash, at least the best of those movies have a real verve behind their exploitation of contemporary hot button issues. What I would give to feel truly energized by a modern issue movie. What I would give to want to stand up and riot rather than gently nod along with the litany of staid complaints presented.
It’s not even close to impossible to meld the explicitly political with character and stylistic vitality. We’ve been doing it since close to the dawn of cinema, when Alice Guy-Blaché made The Consequences of Feminism (1906), a (for its time) radically progressive exploration of gender roles that is as fast and funny as its message is clear. Med Hondo made a fiercely condemnatory statement on racism and the immigrant experience with 1967’s Soleil O, which manages to be experimental and kaleidoscopic without ever losing track of its central point. I could list many, many more movies like those (with a few more recent examples coming from Spike Lee’s filmography), but what matters is that I feel like the basic merging of ideology and style that those bold efforts practiced has become increasingly less visible — at least in the arthouse scene. The only area that seems to be actively encouraging this mixture of the political and the exciting is genre fare, with filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Boots Riley showing real stylistic and thematic ambition along with their ideologies. But those films don’t often headline Cannes, or Locarno, or Venice, probably due to the same condescension that created the need to designate specific movies as ‘elevated’ just because it might be passé to enjoy a movie with blood and guts.
Now, it’s very possible that I am just not watching the right films. When I go to book festival tickets, there are certain subjects, directors, loglines, etc., that make me immediately weary. But that weariness isn’t baseless. It’s been building and increasing over the last three to four years. I hate to be that dickhead at the dinner party, but, yes, these are the same years as the rise of Trump. Artists have been making didactic, disingenuous bullshit for millennia, but with Trump’s newfound prominence came a new line of performatively woke grifters, people building a brand by replying to his tweets in a scheming facsimile of the vox populi. I wonder if that same performativity has seeped from the edges of the internet into the minds of those who should ostensibly know better. The face of evil has become so blatant and obvious that the bar for good has seemingly lowered to a point of binary condemnation. It’s beginning to feel like art can no longer exist in a complex space heavily influenced by its context; if a film (or book, album, etc.) smells of the problematic, there is undoubtedly an online mob that will unthinkingly condemn it wholesale. A recent and representative example: search Twitter for Tarantino right now, and you will find countless attempted takedowns of him on the basis of the violence in his movies. Of the myriad of Tarantino’s issues worth grappling with, “excessive onscreen violence” is about as reductive and lazy as I can imagine. But it is a simple one, and it is superficially aligned against the growing culture of violence and hatred that Trump and co. have welcomed.
That’s a lot of words about stuff other than Baby, the movie I was asked to write about. But that other stuff is as close to something substantive I can write about this film, which I find interesting primarily as an example of the festival fare of which I’m very tired. Baby is aggressive enough in its disgust for China’s policies towards newborns that I’m surprised the censorship board let it through (I wonder if arthouse darling Hsou Hsiao Hsien’s producing credit is what gave it some wiggle room), the film is acted with adequate feeling, and it’s paced quickly. Beyond that, I don’t understand why it’s not an essay or a journalistic piece. It’s basically a speech, one with a message that would come across just as clearly if you closed your eyes for the duration of the screening. But hey — it’s a good message.
Baby will be playing Sat 10 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Kai Perrignon is a Melbourne-based writer and filmmaker. He has the appropriate amount of self-loathing for someone who is both of those things: a lot. His Twitter handle is @memoryendowment. His Letterboxd is his name.