Stonehead (Melbourne International Film Festival)
Zhu Hongbo, Cai Jiakun
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While tenderly observed, the small-scale narrative of Stonehead is flat and well-trodden.
Zhao Xiang is the latest in a long line of international filmmakers from the Bicycle Thieves school of storytelling. In the early 2000s, Zhao cut his teeth as assistant on similarly spartan indie films like Beijing Bicycle; Stonehead, his debut feature, follows a small-town boy as his friendships and ultimately his sense of self-worth are shattered by the arrival of a new soccer ball. It’s sort of like The Gods Must Be Crazy, only played as unsentimental coming-of-age drama rather than comedy.
Shot on handheld in an anonymous, grey village somewhere in China’s interior, Zhao keeps his perspective at eye level, on the mundane routines of everyday life. Apart from one overhead shot of the village environs, most of Stonehead takes place in a rundown and neglected school. All the children have been ‘left behind’ by parents departed for urban centres to make money, in the care of taciturn grandparents and an inquisitorial principal. One of them, Stonehead, is awarded a model student certificate, but becomes obsessed with a shiny soccer ball that he is gifted, and which promptly deflates during a game with classmates.
Stonehead is perhaps intended as an implicit rebuke to the unabashed, high-end materialism that dominates China’s mainstream cinema: the idea that the arrival of a soccer ball could be a major event seems implausible, even vaguely unworldly. But Zhao grounds his directorial language in documentary-like realism. The dialogue is plain and functional, the actors obviously amateurs – performances are rough but generally effective – and it’s mildly shocking just how small the denominations of money are. The most exchanged in one transaction is 35 yuan, about the price of a cup of coffee in Beijing.
While tenderly observed, the small-scale narrative of Stonehead is flat and well-trodden. There’s nothing in it to suggest that it isn’t a lost film from the late ‘90s, when Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai galvanised Chinese cinema with a string of indie releases featuring non-professional actors. As another portrait of a changing China and the urban-rural divide, Stonehead lacks freshness; it’s the sensitivity to simple but hard-hitting character moments that stands out in Zhao’s grainy cinéma vérité.