Nezha – A Poetic Rebellion


In his debut Golden Horse-nominated feature film, Nezha 《少女哪吒》, Director Li Xiaofeng does a great job in bringing the novel of the same name to the big screen.  Its story takes place in a rural city in China during the 1990s and 2000s during which time two 16-year old Chinese girls develop a friendship but then separate as they begin to confront the adult world.

With precise production design and on-point acting, the film manages to recreate the emotionally repressed rural city described by Wang Xiaobing, the main character in this film, as a “hypocrite”.  The slouchy school uniforms, forbidden hairstyles, and school assemblies depicted in the film are pieces of the highly regulated education experience that will resonate with every young Chinese person from the 90s.   This public school life also plays an important role in the story.

While puberty always comes with that certain anonymous dissent towards the world, the broken pair of Wang Xiaobing’s parents, particularly her controlling mother, leads her to a self-destructive rebellion.  Although she is a merit student at school, she is not a tame girl according to the teachers’ standards.  Her conflict with the world is joined by Li Xiaolu, a transfer student who also has the confidence and courage to challenge the adult world.  The friendship between Wang Xiaobing and Li Xiaolu starts by sharing secrets and a common taste in literature that’s beyond their peers.  The friendship develops with the idealistic rebellious spirit they share but gradually ends due to different life experiences and choices made by the two girls.  They choose to grow up in separate ways in this friendship.

As a protection deity in Chinese folk religion, Nezha has been the symbol for rebellious youth in various Chinese art forms.  With visual inspirations that vary from Taoist art to Japanese silk printing, Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King  《哪吒闹海》depicts Nezha as a little boy who is brave enough to fight against the Dragon King in his classic outfit, riding flaming rings on his feet like rollerblades that allow him to fly.  Made by Shanghai Animation Film Studio in 1979, it was the first animated film to come out after the Cultural Revolution and was soon screened out of competition at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.  A Chinese band named Nezha praises the rebellious spirit of their namesake in the song “Nao Hai” 《闹海》:

这个世界有它自己强硬的规则 / The world has its own tough rules
任谁都无法打破 / That are hard to break
理想主义的少年 / But the Nezha youth (idealistic youth)
不会被现实招安 / Won’t submit to it

One similar cinematic adaptation of this symbol is Tsai Ming-Liang’s Rebels of the Neon God, whose Chinese title, 青少年哪吒,  literally translates to “Teenage Nezha”.  The main characters share the same dissent against the adult world but through different ways.   But what’s interesting about Li’s film is the teenage girl perspective.  Through the sensitive eyes of the girls, the confrontation with the adult world is even more subtle and profound.

Unlike a lot of other contemporary Chinese independent films that use acute social issues to reflect on a way of life in China, the director does not ambitiously seek to tell the rebel’s story in a broader social perspective.  Instead, he uses poetic film language and music to tell a beautiful sad story of hope, friendship, and, just like American teen movies, that universal pain of growing up.

Nezha screens as part of the Asian American International Film Festival at 6 PM, July 31, 2015 at Village Cinema East