Pao Da Shuang Deng

(Red Firecracker Green Firecracker, China 1994)
by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Ning Jing, Wu Gang, Zhao Xiaorui, Zao Ghang, Xu Zhengyun, Zhao Liang
Genre: Romance
Director: He Ping
Screenplay: Da Ying, based on the novel by Feng Jicai
Cinematography: Yang Lun
Composer: Zhao Jiping
Runtime: 115 minutes

Many so-called "tearjerkers" emphasize the dramatic events rather than develop their characters. They feel the events that drive them will make us care, and thus accomplish their purpose. When one film does that, involves us in a good story with the help of character development, the film is cast off as a tearjerker because people have no patience.

The Cai family has been a stronghold in the fireworks business for generations, but the last Cai ended up being a 19-year-old girl, carried as a "Master" even if she wasn't ready for such responsibility and didn't necessarily want it. Chun Zhi (Ning Jing) grows up among the strict "rules" of Chinese feudalism, raised and dressed like a boy and forced to vow she wouldn't get married and leave the business to an outsider. Chun is not only a prisoner of the system, but also of the way her family "designed" her life. She isn't allowed to be a woman, much less a 19-year-old one with the will to find love and explore other people's minds. One irony is that she doesn't even take care of the day to day business matters; Mr. Mann is there for that.

One day, painter Nie Bao (Wu Gang) is hired to paint the mansion's 72 "door gods" and hell begins. Nie Bao, like Toshiro Mifune in many Kurosawa movies, represents the anti-establishment hero who isn't afraid of the social structuring and doesn't look down when Chun Zhi looks at him. The fact that he's so different brings out what has been hidden by years of sexual protection and constraint, the "woman" in Chun Zhi.

Their relationship is a big problem from the first moment they meet in Nie Bao's room, even though they only talked. Not only are the people surprised and worried by the "Masters" sudden change in behavior, but also they're afraid of what could happen if a romance develops. Mr. Mann seems to be the most concerned of them all, and tries to break any attempt at a relationship. His efforts have just the effect he doesn't want them to, they make Chun's attraction to Nie Bao explode, so much that she announces to the house she wants to be a woman rather than their master. Their relationship will take many turns, and end in a non-conventional way.

I've heard people saying the relationship between Nie Bao and Chun Zhi was "contrived" because of Zhi's lack of passion and emotions, but that's the reason why it was brilliantly portrayed. Zhi is fighting with everything she was taught, against her people and even her own will. She has to make a very tough decision, one that people of other cultures may not be able to understand because they are used to choice and see this as "an easy one." Things happen during the film that make her decision even more difficult, and even if the final payoff is a bit too "sensationalist," it's a very good ending to their relationship without the necessity of a feel good heroic comeback that totally changes millennia of history and tradition.

One thing that stands out in this film is the visually astonishing cinematography: everything from the different degrees of lighting to the colors, sounds, images, and the costumes look so realistic. The soundtrack by Zhang Yimou regular Zhao Jiping (To Live, Raise The Red Lantern, Farewell my Concubine) is beautiful, especially the main theme. There are explosions during the course of the film that help the firecrackers obtain something of a symbolic meaning. The acting is very good, with everyone playing their role well. The leads particularly stand out with Jing showing contempt and how challenging the struggle is to choose between love and tradition, between the "mannish" mannerisms and conserving the characteristics and traits of her real sexuality. Gang's anti-establishment character really shows confidence.

Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker is a good reflection on Chinese traditions, love, and society. It offers a very interesting romance that's different in its portrayal. Even if the ending is bittersweet, sometimes it feels better than a Hollywood tearjerker that always finds the happy ending even if it doesn't make sense. A beautiful story with amazing cinematography and very good themes. This is my first He Ping film, but I'm satisfied by it.  



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