Blue Sky Bones: China's Godfather of Rock 'n' Roll Puts On A Director's Cap
Cui Jian makes his directorial debut with the US premiere of "Blue Sky Bones" that explores loss and reclamation in the face of traumatic amnesia' in modern China
Cui Jian has always been an artist - hardly surprising considering he was born out of a marriage between a musician and a dancer. His latest artistic foray marks the rock star's directorial debut in the film industry as the mastermind behind his "Blue Sky Bones". Cui Jian recently visited New York City in support of the inaugural U.S. screening of his film at New York University (NYU). He also graciously took time out of his busy schedule to meet twice with a group of interested students, music enthusiasts, and press prior to the showing. The event, aptly titled "Conversations With Cui Jian", allowed attendees to personally ask the "Godfather of Chinese Rock 'n' Roll" questions in an unrestrained manner that simulated the air of intimate conversation.
Wearing his iconic white cap with the lone red star splashed across its center, Cui Jian kicked off his second conversation with a reminder that he considers music to be his way of being able to interact with society despite not finishing college, or even high school. In particular, although it is hard to define rock and roll, he sees it as indicative of having the courage to face historical and social situations. A critical element of rock comes from its seriousness, or lack thereof, as it can be seen as a critique of what is traditionally considered to be serious. Cui Jian further expounded that rock's role is act as hammer, a balancing act of sorts; whenever societal problems, such as social injustice and unemployment, tip to one extreme, it is partially rock 'n' roll's job to even out the scales.
Seeing as Cui Jian considers music and film to be "sister arts", it seems appropriate that the newly turned director intended "Blue Sky Bones" to serve a similar purpose. Although initially reserved when asked about what influences living in China has had on his art, the rock star became passionately vocal when the inquisitive student zeroed in on the June Fourth incident. Cui Jian responded that one of the resulting struggles is the phenomenon of "traumatic amnesia", or forgetting out of fear, which puts people in conflict because of a disconnect between conflict and reality. There is a certain self-struggle for stability that results in the avoidance of tackling relevant problems and postponing them for a future generation. "Blue Sky Bones" tackles this issue by confronting its viewers about whether they have the courage to embrace the story it weaves, as the film follows underground hacker and musician Zhong Hua in his journey of self-discovery. While struggling with feeling disjointed from his present day reality, he manages to find solace and a greater sense of self-understanding by coming to terms with the history of his parents' dystopic past. It is only when the traumatic amnesia is shed that it becomes possible to comfortably look to the future.
However, given China's restrictive nature, it is not easy to use self-expression to right the unbalance of societal woes, forcing Cui Jian to resort to self-censorship in order to relay his message. "It is a safer way to emote passion. I do not like this style," the rock star stated matter-of-factly, "but I accept it due to my experiences in China. The most important thing is to remember not to sacrifice too much of yourself." This game of reading between the lines becomes its own art form.
It is this idea of self-censorship that give breath to what, in my opinion, was the most poignant of scenes in "Blue Sky Bones". During flashbacks to the past, which finds Zhong Hua's mother, Shi Yanping, in a training camp with two other boys, Sun Hong and Chen Dong, to give a performance of her composition, "Lost Season". Chen Dong softly hits the first few notes of the piano as he looks imploringly at Yanping to sing, which she does, in a mournful lilting voice soaring over the instrument. It is ironic how well they fit together, as Yanping has thus far rejected all of his advances. She is meant to be the future betrothed of Sun Hong, who is more interested in Chen Dong. While this is never explicitly said, it becomes all too apparent when Sun Hong eases into a broken modern dance under the shower hose. He slips, over and over, on the wet concrete in his attempt to reach out for someone who isn't there, beads of water trickling down his face as the music reaches a crescendo. The scene is jarringly broken by slow applause, before that is also jarringly broken... by the sound of an official declaring the piece to be too reactionary. Although Sun Hong's feelings for Chen Dong had to be censored from being explicitly shown, the artistry of the song and dance resulted in a more moving form of self-expression. The subtle nuances of self-censorship laid bare the characters' emotions, giving too much of themselves away for the reserved government.
Like the "Lost Season" scene, the rest of "Blue Sky Bones" is told in bits and pieces, with fragments of the past interspersed with shocks of the present, the story arcs of different characters jumbled together in an attempt to find each other. Much like Chinese rock 'n' roll music, which Cui Jian asserts is more categorized by musicians doing their own thing before coming together in an idiosyncratic manner, the movie is meant to be appreciated as a sum of its parts. In musical terms, the director likens it to a symphony, rather than a pop song; rather than simply following a melody, one must take into consideration all the elements of a symphony, such as orchestration and how the movements mesh, in order to fully enjoy the piece.
Cui Jian ended the evening by answering one student's question about his advice for aspiring filmmakers. The rock star cautioned that making a movie is not just for oneself, but to share and convince others of your ideas. If that is the goal of a good film, Cui Jian's directorial debut is undoubtedly a success in my eyes. "Blue Sky Bones" is a symphony that beautifully comes together in order to tell a story about past and present, loss and reclamation, censorship and freedom-a series of contradictions that somehow fits together to create an extremely poignant film that pays homage to both music and culture.
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