April is National Poetry Month, and we’re celebrating with a series of articles that looks at Chinese poetry, both past and present. Our last piece was about Du Fu’s poem “Ballad of an Old Cypress.” Today, our resident film columnist looks at a poetry film.
For a country that’s produced poets with lives as colorful and dramatic as the ones led by Li Bai 李白 and Hai Zi 海子, there’s a disappointing lack of movies about poets and poetry in China. What few biopics there are, such as a 1998 retelling of the turbulent life of Misty Poet Gu Cheng 顾城, have been lousy and forgettable. In honor of National Poetry Month, however, there is at least one poetry-related Chinese film worth watching. It’s definitely offbeat, and the poet it follows is completely obscure, but Ju Anqi’s 雎安奇 Poet on a Business Trip 诗人出差了might just be the best (and only) poet-docufiction-road movie ever made.
In September 2002, director Ju took an underground poet named Shu 竖 on a 40-day odyssey through Xinjiang, where Ju was born. The director and poet slept in hostels, visited brothels, hitchhiked with strangers, recorded chats with locals, and shot footage of Xinjiang’s sights and landscapes for the film. After returning to Beijing, Ju and Shu had a falling-out, and the movie didn’t enter its editing stage until 2013. When it was finally released in 2015, Poet on a Business Trip played at the international film festivals in Jeonju and Rotterdam, winning awards in both competitions.
After the opening credits, Shu appears on-screen hiding under a blanket, having sex with a prostitute. In the only voice-over in the movie, Shu introduces himself as a poet who’s never been on a business trip. He decides to send himself on a trip to Xinjiang, where he writes 16 poems that are shown throughout the movie. While the prostitute moans in the soundtrack, the screen cuts to the first poem, in white font on a black background. Shu and the woman reappear and get dressed, and then Shu is off on a bus to start a journey that manages to be both absurd and sorrowful.
Beyond this basic plot, the narrative is thin and freewheeling. It’s a mix of fact and fiction, and it’s never clear where the one begins and the other ends. Shu travels to a variety of places, yet not much happens, and he’s the only one who might be called a character. Rather than focusing on character and plot, the movie emphasizes expression through Shu’s poems and the landscape of Xinjiang. There are shots of the barren desert, of roads that seem to go on forever, and of vast plains. The lifelessness of the imagery gives the movie a quiet, existential tone, yet Shu also has plenty of interactions with the people who live here, passing through hostels, restaurants, and brothels.
These vignettes are some of the most fascinating parts of the movie, and given the recent situation in Xinjiang, make it an interesting time capsule of what might have been a more peaceful time. Despite its reputation as the “frontier” of China, the people captured in Poet on a Business Trip don’t seem much different than in other parts of the country. They sing karaoke, haggle over prices, and have a good time getting drunk. They watch boxers and singers on TV, talk about love, and tell each other stories. During one car ride, Shu travels with a man who’s had way too much to drink. He sings a song about his love for the place he calls home, singing “I’ve been to a lot of places, and the most beautiful is still our Xinjiang.”
As lovely as these little bits are, there’s also a sense of frustration and sadness in these lives, too. One man warns Shu that hitchhiking isn’t such a good idea nowadays, while a little girl remarks that there were a lot of car accidents earlier in the winter, and that a baby had died in one. In another scene, while Shu sits with a sheepherder outside, the man complains about a group of Hong Kongers who wouldn’t tell him where in the city they lived, because they doubted he knew anything about the place. ”That really pissed me off,” the man says. “Do you think because I live out here in the mountains, I don’t know anything?” He points out that Xinjiang is considered behind the rest of the country, but he wants to travel across China to see for himself whether that’s true.
Shu’s poetry adds another dimension to the movie. He’s relatively straight-faced and introverted, but his poems bring out his feelings. Sometimes they’re relatable or natural to what’s happening on screen, whether related to physical images, or more emotional, abstract ones. After seeing Bosten Lake, for example, there’s a poem of the same name, and in another example, a sexual encounter leads to a poem about vaginas. Other times, however, I didn’t understand the relevance of certain poems. After parting ways with two brief friends, and before entering another hostel, a poem simply titled “Three Apples” appears: “One single apple / one single apple / one single apple / three single apples.” Fortunately, not all of the poems are as indecipherable as this.
That aside, Poet on a Business Trip has all the marks of a memorable piece of poetry. It’s ambiguous, so open to interpretation. There’s an air of mystery, but it’s not obtuse. It has subtlety and beauty, and will certainly keep you thinking well after it’s over.