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Film Review: Not Solidarity but Entanglement: Some Thoughts on Un cuento chino

The message seems to be this, simple but easy to forget: we need each other.

One cannot take too seriously a film called Un cuento chino. Argentinian director Sebastián Borensztein’s film with this title departs from an unbelievable story set in China of a tragedy caused by a cow that falls from the sky and kills the girlfriend of a beloved couple at the moment when the boyfriend is about to propose to her with a wedding ring. This Chinese cuento (story), the director reminds us twice, in the beginning and towards the end of the film, is based on “hechos reales,” (or facts), looks indeed improbable.

The film is about how Roberto, an Argentinian local, opens his door to Jun, a Chinese immigrant who does not speak a word of Spanish, and helps Jun look for his uncle. The themes touched upon in the film, namely refugee, immigrant, and the global south, would easily elicit terminologies such as hospitality, sympathy, and certainly solidarity, as well as their accompanying grand narratives. Un cuento chino, however, seems to decisively evade these grandiosities. After all, “un cuento chino” in Spanish idiom (also) means a cock and bull story, fanciful.

In an age of “refugee crisis” and its spectacularization in media and the arts, and especially as one writes from Fortress Europe ever increasingly fortifying its border to let immigrants die at bay, watching a light-hearted film about immigrants is immensely refreshing. The film is of course not without problems. In fact, it is full of them, easy to critique: for example, the stereotyping of Chinese (immigrant) as docile and resilient, but at the same time “reluctant to integrate,” and literally “inscrutable” (the film does not provide subtitles for Jun). “You Chinese people don’t (want to) integrate,” I hear this too frequently. The film portrays precisely that: the Chinese community seems to be over there, in the barrio chino that Roberto needs to drive to, even in la Plata, in Mendoza, in, well, China, just not “here” in the barrio where Roberto and his friends live. It is borderline racist, therefore offensive.

Despite and also because of these problems, the film manages to convey an almost mythical message, not that of solidarity but of entanglement. Let’s start with the characters. None of them is a role model, neither model immigrant nor model citizen. They are common people caught in a rapidly globalizing world where they meet almost by pure chance (thus the film’s title in Chinese: 一丝偶然 a thin kind of coincidence).

There is no predisposed solidarity by virtue of the two protagonists being both from the “global south.” Roberto helps Jun out of a basic instinct, not of a political conviction (for example, proletariat of the world unite!). He simply offers Jun a hand who is in need of help. Similarly, Jun helps Roberto to get out of trouble with a murderous policeman. Their “solidarity,” if by which we mean their encounter, happens out of a common sense that neither the violent Argentinian police nor the corrupt Chinese embassy seem able to grasp.

Yet, a story of people helping each other does not quite qualify as a tale, even a “cuento chino.” It needs to convey a message. The cow and its image that has brought tragedy to Jun but reconciliation to Roberto give the film a rare mythical aura, uncommon in a light comedy. The message seems to be this, simple but easy to forget: we need each other. Roberto helps Jun who was lost on the street in a foreign land and language to find his family. Jun helps Roberto who was lost in his memory and cynicism to find his courage to face Mari, the only female protagonist of the film. All these happen by chance, what is predetermined is not a fate of encounter, but the entangled nature of human existence.

This reflection could have ended here on the grandiosity of “human existence.” However, if one rereads what has been written above, and intentionally adds a gendered qualifier to many of the words that appear in the previous paragraphs, one notices that by “protagonist,” “people,” “immigrant,” or “citizen” I actually mean “male protagonists,” “male people,” “male immigrant,” and “male citizen.” These valuable themes explored in the film become tainted with undeniable straight homosocial specificity. In another word, would I, or we, easily reach the “mythical” level of analysis, if the protagonists, people, immigrants, and citizens in the film were all women or all lesbians? I, for one, am not sure.

First published as part of the film review series "China in the Global South, and Gender/Sexual Politics" complied and edited by Lisa Rofel and Petrus Liu, on Sexuality Politics on 25 Jan 2019.

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