Striding Into The Wind is Chinese director Wei Shujun’s feature film debut and a promising one at that. The deeply irreverent work can be shoved into the road-trip genre but doing so would be a gross misinterpretation of Wei’s thesis. At first glance, it appears to be yet another recreation of the disillusioned youth archetype but we slowly realise that it is actually the manifestation of a disillusioned filmmaker’s creative sensibilities: a gorgeous anti-genre piece.
The film is an unconventional and semi-autobiographical case-study of Kun, a young Chinese student who is in the last year of his sound engineering course at film school. Right from the opening scene, Wei sets the tone for the entire work. We see a row of white cars monotonously making the rounds at a driving school. Suddenly, one car breaks out of the line and the driver just starts running away from the disciplined manoeuvres of the other learners. This is how we meet Kun, a young man who buys a decrepit jeep without a driver’s license because he dreams of driving with wild horses in Inner Mongolia. Throughout the film, the jeep keeps breaking down and so do his dreams.
Wei conducts a meta-exploration of the process of contemporary filmmaking by structuring it in the form of a film within a film. Kun and his best friend Tong work as a part of the sound crew in a student thesis film. The director keeps quoting the genius of Wong Kar-wai and asks his cinematographer to emulate Taiwanese New Wave auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien. He has no vision of his own and spends his time trying to flirt with the lead actress. His statement of artistic intent: “The film will become alive on its own, once the camera rolls. Who needs a script? Wong Kar-wai or Hong Sangsoo?”
Unlike the arrogant student director, Wei mocks this rampant fetishisation and believes in his own vision. In an interview, he said: “The feedback I got was always that he hoped I could ‘adhere more to standards’ or ‘conform more to common practices.’ But I have to identify with my own characters and story, or else I’ll shoot something that conforms well but has no life to it.”
There’s a general malaise which operates throughout Striding Into The Wind, much like Tsai Ming-Liang’s 1992 film Rebels of the Neon God. Beyond that, both films also share other similarities but the most important one is the devolution of youth into a life of crime. Kun does not pay attention during college lectures, choosing to look at camgirls on the phone with Tong. His fundamental philosophy is that of irreverence and an aversion to the idea of discipline. It is safe to assume that this is the result of a controlled childhood: his mother is a strict teacher and his father is a police officer. Figures of authority make him sick.
If Wei’s film had to be reduced to one simple idea, it would probably be liberation. Liberation from the performative roles of modern society, from an economical system that is indifferent to the poor, from the restrictions of a genre and from the limitations of cinema itself. We repeatedly find ourselves in the backseat of Kun’s car, the static camera making us feel impotent when confronted with the dynamism of a rapidly changing life. The real tragedy of Striding Into The Wind is that Kun is gifted. In one remarkable scene, his professor asks him to come up and recreate the sound of horse hooves. He looks for the answers in a textbook, tears up a few of the pages and uses it as padding to make the sound effect more authentic (simulating the presence of grass beneath the hooves). It is this delightful iconoclasm that reinforces the disconnect between talent and success.
It can be argued that Striding Into The Wind is a homage to the tradition of filmmaking because it directly refers to many of the greats. It also recreates the iconic and carnivalesque ending sequence from Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½ within the context of the rituals of the local geography. However, the film is ultimately a highly subversive work which guards itself against the debilitating anxiety of influence with the help of postmodern irony. Kun’s quest for liberty does lead him to Inner Mongolia but he never feels free. His car breaks down, he gets arrested and ends up in a detention centre. Wei criticises this idea of tangible freedom that can be located in a particular place, deconstructing the myth of these grand narratives by forcing us to come to terms with the need for an internal change. Even though he has made it to Inner Mongolia, the horses are playing dead and modernity has corrupted the surroundings. All he can say is: “This is not grasslandish spirit at all.”
Striding Into The Wind is the chronicle of a young man who loses everything he once had: love, the possibility of a bright future, college education and the potential of a liberated life. He even has to sell his car for ¥500. On the cab ride back, he listens to a radio broadcast about how his former employer has become a celebrity and he is forced to smile at how far he has fallen. Wei chooses to end his bold debut with stuttering footage of wild horses running but it is fragmented, a collection of images that hold no meaning in a two dimensional space propped up by fractured time.