Berlinale 2024 review: Above the Dust (Wang Xiaoshuai)

“Official propaganda might still proclaim loudly to ‘jump into a new era’, but Wang Xiaoshuai makes sure that we are not fooled by it.

Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai is a long-time regular of the Berlinale competition, from Beijing Bicycle back in 2001 (winner of the Jury Grand Prix) to So Long, My Son in 2019, for which the actors Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun received the two acting awards in an exceptional dual win. The presentation of Wang Xiaoshuai’s new film, Above the Dust, as a late and discreet addition to the Generation Kplus sidebar selection is in no way a sign of relegation, but an attempt to protect this work by keeping it away from a brighter spotlight. Announced back in 2020 and completed in 2022, Above the Dust did not receive the seal of approval from China’s censorship office – and after seeing it, it is not hard to understand why. Under the pretense of telling an ingenuous children’s story about the quest for a water pistol, Wang Xiaoshuai tackles the same themes as in So Long, My Son: how the global politics of China make it so hard for families to live decent, peaceful lives, let alone to prosper from one generation to the next. But this time in an even harsher and more direct way.

Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei return in this film, the latter as Muyue, the mother of the main character Wo Tu (portrayed by newcomer Wenxin Ouyang). Set in 2008 in a poor and remote village, Above the Dust sees Muyue taking care of Wo Tu, his little sister, and his dying grandfather by herself, while her husband Chuan works on construction sites in the nearby city. Each time Chuan leaves, Wo Tu asks him to bring back a water pistol, mainly because all the ‘cool’ kids at school have one, despite the village’s acute water shortage. Each time Chuan comes back he has forgotten the toy. Seeing that, Wo Tu’s grandpa offers him a deal: come pay your respects to my grave once I’m gone, and for my part I’ll come back as a ghost to give you your water pistol.

After the grandfather’s death, the first part of the deal already proves difficult to fulfill, and is a foreboding sign of the many ordeals to come for the family. As it turns out, the Chinese authorities have banned burials and made cremation mandatory (they also frown upon the idea of believing in any kind of afterlife), forcing Wo Tu’s family to bury the funeral urn secretly in the dark hours of the night. Now that Wo Tu can visit his grandpa’s final resting place, what the young boy gets is very different from what he wished for, as is so often the case in tales including spirits. His grandfather starts visiting him in his dreams and bends these into a thorough account of their family history since 1949, when the Communist Party took over the nation; he makes sure to leave out none of the dreadful parts of this history. Wang Xiaoshuai uses an inventive, lively, free narrative form, with people coming and going in dreams embedded into other dreams, doors through which one can jump in time and space, visions suddenly materializing in the middle of the desert; as the grandfather puts it, “I dream about him dreaming about me.” The form used collides violently with the litany of tragic events revealed to Wo Tu.

For sixty years, every generation of his family has suffered materially, physically, and morally from the decisions unilaterally enforced by the state: land nationalization, the Great Leap Forward, population displacement to new villages, replacing the old, abandoned ones altogether. All these events are depicted in short, sharp set pieces that go straight to the point while always being visually striking and original (both adjectives apply to Wang Xiaoshuai’s use of cinematography, camera blocking, and movement throughout the whole movie). As a legacy from his grandfather Wo Tu hoped for a water pistol, yet what he obtained was to outgrow his childhood too fast, becoming all too soon aware of his condition as a boy from a working-class family. Likewise, Muyue’s dream in terms of family inheritance was to put her hands on some hidden treasure left behind by their ancestors; the scenes in which we see her dig everywhere around the house have a comical edge to them, as treasure hunting puts her in a similar, childishly excited state of mind as her son. She will find out that the only way to gain some money is by undergoing yet another tragedy.

In the final act of the film the past has given way to the present, and the family has left its rural, crumbling surroundings, which almost felt as if they were living in the Maoist forced labor camp of Wang Bing’s The Ditch rather than in human society. Their current home is in the brand new city where Chuang works. There, once the shock of the different scenery filled with bright lights and skyscrapers has worn off, it becomes clear that nothing has changed or will ever fundamentally change for them. Official propaganda might still proclaim loudly to ‘jump into a new era’, as it never stopped doing in the previous decades, but Wang Xiaoshuai makes sure that we are not fooled by it. His film opens and closes with the same dust storm hitting Wo Tu hard, whether he lives in a worn-out village or a modern city. A visual metaphor of the bleak truth that for him and his kind progress is an illusion, never to be experienced or benefited from. They serve it, but it never does them any good.