An Insignificant Affair
t.l. Una vicenda senza importanza
小事儿 (Xiao Shi Er)
China, 2020, 102’, Mandarin
Directed by: Ning Yuanyuan
Executive Director: Hong Yiqiang
Script: Ning Yuanyuan, Ye Xiaobai
Photography (color): Gao Shiyi
Editing: Jia Cuiping
Art Direction: Li Wenliang
Costumes: Han Xu
Music: Jae Gweon Han
Sound: Guo Linglong
Producers: Song Jia, Li Long
Production Companies: Wuxi Big Cat Film and Tv Culture development Co., iQiyi Pictures, Liangrun Pictures
Cast: Dong Bowen (He Xiaoshi), Ning Yuanyuan (Lin Xiaoyu), Chen Chengyu (Sun Yi), Song Yingchun (father He), Ding Wenbo (Headmaster), Sun Lufei (teacher), Han Xun (mother He), Qian Baoxiu (female student), Zhang Haoxuan (male student)
Date of First Release in Territory: TBA
Premiere status: World Premiere
In a not exactly sparkling year for Chinese cinema, the directorial debut of the very young director Ning Yuanyuan is particularly noteworthy, resulting in a film that shows narrative ability and psychological acumen worthy of a veteran. It is no coincidence that the director comes from a cinematic dynasty – her father is the famous director Zhang Yuan and her mother the screenwriter Ning Dai.
An Insignificant Affair tells a story – or a relationship, the term “affair” has a double meaning – seemingly insignificant but revealing important and ambiguously described truths, so the film lends itself to two different interpretations, either that of black comedy or classic romance.
The story takes place in Taizhou, an enchanting riverside town in Jiangsu, where the urban landscape has retained enough traditional features to lend the appearance of time having stood still. The fact that the story takes place in 2008 is only clear because of a reference to the American presidential elections of that year, but the settings, the dialogues and the mental attitude of the characters belong to an almost timeless China.
The narrative revolves around two high school friends: He Xiaoshi is the classic adolescent boy, a bit naïve, physically resembling a young man but psychologically still a child, who feels misunderstood by his parents and teachers; he’s listless at school and doesn’t hesitate to accept the help of classmates better than him, in particular that of the Lin Xiaoyu. She is the classic genius, a super-intelligent, studious girl, who grew up fast partly due to complex family situations, and who is always one step ahead of Xiaoshi, to whom she patiently gives advice and help in homework.
From a certain perspective, the film could also lend itself to a feminist interpretation. The two are inseparable, but Xiaoshi is not yet able to process his feelings, he thinks that his friendship with Xiaoyu is purely based on her helping him study. One day, while playing at palm-reading, the two of them are “caught” by the school principal who accuses them of having an relationship – something that is not allowed between students – and forces Xiaoshi to write a self-analytical confession. This “incident” gives rise to a series of increasingly absurd situations, in which Xiaoshi – with the help of Xiaoyu – writes and publicly reads self-analyses that are criticised by his teachers as lacking honesty: they start off as being playful and even somewhat irreverent self-criticism, but then move on to more literal readings, before becoming increasingly abstract. The principal continues to ask for revisions and more in-depth analysis.
It’s like watching the unravelling of a plot set on the stage of the theatre of the absurd, while being a parody of a school system which could be read as a metaphor for the system of discipline and regulations that governs Chinese society as a whole, a condemnation of sorts. On the other hand, the reluctance of the authorities to accept Xiaoshi’s explanations could depend on the fact that the adults are seeing beyond the surface, and have understood even before those directly concerned that the two are experiencing the first throes of love...
The film gradually turns into a sort of education in the laws of romance, and, as is the case for their schoolwork, Xiaoyu is again the one who understands the lessons first. But don’t expect the story to end in a foregone conclusion, a demonstration of the remarkable narrative maturity of the director, a talent we’ll certainly be hearing a lot more from in the future, especially when bearing in mind that Ning Yuanyuan not only directed, but she also wrote and acted the role of Lin Xiaoyu to perfection.
Ning Yuanyuan (1998, Beijing) graduated from Central Academy of Drama. She made her debut as an actress as a child in 2006 in the film Little Red Flowers, written by her mother Ning Dai and directed by her father Zhang Yuan. In 2010 she starred in the film My Garden of Eden directed by Sun Xian, and in Space Guy in 2014. An Insignificant Affair is her first film as a director.
2020 – An Insignificant Affair