Winter Vacation (2010), the third film by writer-director Li Hongqi, uses long takes and static shots the way The Great Gatsby uses symbolism; which is to say, conspicuously, repeatedly, and with resounding effectiveness. The film was first released in 2010 and has been making repertory rounds since then, including a recent stop at Minneapolis’s Trylon Microcinema. The film jumps, or at least lurches, between a group of idle teenagers and their fellow townspeople in a dilapidated part of Northern China during the kids’ winter break. In most scenes the camera stays in one place and lingers more a minute or more as some sort of minor cruelty takes place–long shots in which there is little to see. The message is the same in every case: the characters’ environment is permanent, unchangeable. The lives of these characters are likely to change only at the whims of circumstance, and they’re more likely to stay the same.
Li Hongqi’s pacing is similar to that of Jim Jarmusch circa Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law, and although Li’s film doesn’t share the sense of optimism/camaraderie of those movies, it does have its own blunt comic timing. (The beleaguered toddler glimpsed in the trailer is a frequent source of laughs, and in a way, warmth, in spite of the repeated threat that he’ll get his butt kicked by an off-camera uncle.) Humor isn’t much of a palliative in Winter Vacation. Its characters never seem in on the joke, for one thing, and the film’s laughs do little to mitigate the bleakness of Li’s vision. But Li’s humor gives the film its verisimilitude, more so than his frozen-vérité camerawork; unlike some other festival successes of recent years, Winter Vacation never plays like an exercise in miserablism. For a film about social stagnation, and of such deliberate pacing–and it’s available for stateside streaming, by the way–it has unexpected crackle and wit.