Despite increased attention to Chinese cinema, many Westerners still miss out on many good films from China. When Chinese films go unnoticed and unappreciated, I feel a compulsion to share with others.
Today, I share my review of Meng Zong Cries for Bamboo, an eighteen-minute animated short I discovered under the “Moral Stories” tab in the entertainment menu on my Hainan Airlines trans-Pacific flight. Seventeenth in a series entitled “The Story of Chinese Virtue”, it is safe to say that not only have no Westerners ever seen this piece before, it is likely that no Chinese have either.
For the sake of full disclosure, I discovered, watched, and reviewed Meng Zong Cries for Bamboo while subsumed in a mental fugue state brought on by jetlag, airplane restlessness, and two cans of warm Snow Beer.
Set in the Three Kingdoms period, the film begins with an establishing shot of Meng Zong’s mother struggling through a bamboo forest, her back bent under the heavy burden of bearing two buckets of water to the village. Suddenly, she falls, cart wheeling cartoonishly through the forest.
The director (whose name is inexplicably and inexcusably not present in the opening credits sequence) makes the clever artistic choice of setting MZCfB in a world where the laws of physics are as transient and unreliable as the political reality of the Three Kingdoms Period. Meng Zong’s mother rolls for about thirty seconds down a plane with an incline of no more than five degrees. Her protracted anguish symbolizes the family’s helplessness in the face of the physical and political challenges of the time.
Meng Zong, a short, squat androgynous child with a penchant for lipstick and a bold face tattoo, leaps into action in a fit of filial piety. After bandaging up his (her?) mother, he (she?) bemoans the sad state of the region’s transportation infrastructure: if there were a road through the bamboo, his mother would more easily bring water to the village. He urges a bold plan: chop down the bamboo forest, and build a road to the well.
Meng Zong’s far-sightedness is astounding. Not only does he correctly predict the future paradigm shift in geopolitical conflict towards recognition of the paramount value of resource security, he also has the chutzpah to hide his expansionist self-interest in the form of a public works project. Ayn Rand would be proud. One can even imagine Meng Zong financing future enterprises with money wheedled away from UNDP project funds.
Alas, this plan is shot down by Mama Meng. Bamboo stalks, she teaches, are just like people: they hurt if you chop them down. She says that people must respect 一草一木：every blade of grass and every tree, and the trees and grass will, through some poorly-fleshed out chain of logic, project you in exchange. Meng Zong acquiesces, but far too quickly, his show of child-like piety surely foreshadowing future subterfuge. He takes his mother home.
A rough transition—artistic license, surely—throws us immediately into a second life-and-death situation. Mama Meng has fallen ill, and berates Meng Zong for offering to send her to the doctor. They are far too poor for that—all four of the family’s coins should be saved for Meng Zong’s education.
The Mengs are poor—though, to be fair, adjusted for purchasing power parity, this would be thirty-seven coins today.
Mama Meng seems to be on the verge of death… until this man walks in the room.
This is Master Rong. Master Rong is Meng Zong’s teacher and third-place finisher in a village contest to design a drag queen identity inspired by Mr. Monopoly.
Readers, do not be alarmed: Master Rong had me questioning my sexual orientation as well. After all, when he looks so right, what could possibly be Rong?
Master Rong drops the bomb on us that Mama Meng will die unless she gets medicine made from fresh bamboo root. However, it is winter, and fresh roots are hard to come by. Meng Zong then displays a brand of selflessness that should by any objective standard lose him his Ayn Rand Fan Club card forever. He spends weeks—okay, six minutes—hopelessly digging in the bamboo forest looking for fresh roots. Covered in snow and faced with his mother’s imminent death, he breaks down and cries. His tears seep into the ground and revive the dormant plants, and soon root shoots shoot up all around. The paragon of filial piety, he returns home, saves his mother, and goes on to test into Harvard.
I would have a shaky cell-phone picture of this dramatic ending, except that at this crucial moment the stewardess informed me that new Chinese law prohibits use of cell phones on airplanes, even those set in airplane mode. This raises the obvious question of what airplane mode is for, if not for airplanes? My argument that technically international law applies over the Pacific Ocean fell on deaf ears. As getting out of my seat to grab the camera stowed in my overhead bag was an never an option I seriously considered, I have no picture, but trust me, it was pretty dramatic.
On the surface, Meng Zong Cries for Bamboo appears to be a story about filial piety and the dangers of reckless public works projects, as well as a manifesto in support of the nascent Chinese LGBTQ movement. However, the genius of this work lies in its subliminal attack on the Chinese health care system. The idea that a family with an income of four coins would not qualify for federal assistance shows that much progress still needs to be made.
After all, not all of us have a Master Rong to fall back/sit on.
The Great LOL of China is a blog that aims to share the topics and themes that make Chinese audiences laugh. Its creator is Jesse Appell , an intercultural comedian who performs Chinese-language comedy all around China.