Waves (2006) (H)

Directed by Li Tao

Waves achieves that most encouraging potential of documentary film: the presentation of events that constitute a unique experience for the individuals on screen, while also inviting the audience to respond and relate to what’s going on based on their own personal experience. It follows brief periods in the lives of four Chinese teenagers attending Hutt Valley High School as international students, achieving a rare level of intimacy that keeps you fascinated by these people as it provokes you to consider your own position. I’ll get this out of the way immediately: it falls short of the highest rating because of some distracting technical issues and often limited documentary technique, but I am at pains to insist that the content is good enough to carry these failings.

First we meet Ken. The message from his story is that no matter how well you manage to adapt, no matter how friendly your hosts and new classmates are, there’s no place like home. Over at Lumière, they’ve made special mention of the scene in which he breaks down crying while looking at a photo taken back in China. It is incredibly moving, but the conversation he has with his father that immediately precedes it is just as important to note – especially when he says “Oh, you’re on a business trip”. It’s the purest portrait of alienation cinema has to offer, and it is all the more surprising given that it comes immediately after he has so happily celebrated Father’s Day with his homestay family. Yes, things are going fine for Ken (later we see that he’s coping wonderfully at school, too), but it doesn’t take a lot of reminding that the comforts of home are sorely missed.

Rose is next, and her story provides many of the film’s most delightful moments. At first the focus is narrow: we see her hanging out with a few other Chinese students, at home in her bedroom, and studying in class. She seems just as alienated as Ken did. However, Tao steadily reveals more details until we see just how remarkable this girl is – she’s pursuing academic opportunities she would have ignored back home, she speaks good English with a Kiwi accent, and most of all, she is popular and well-liked by many at school. This is illustrated best by a brief shot of the gifts she receives for her birthday just from other students – a desk drawer stuffed to overflowing with chocolates, flowers and toys. She hasn’t just come here to study; she’s really making the most of the experience.

Her to-camera musings on the differences between the Chinese and Kiwi cultures throw up many questions. She says that in China you are more driven, better focused, but less individual; in New Zealand, you are encouraged to be unique and pursue that which appeals to you. Which is better? Who is to say? Rose prefers the freedom afforded her in New Zealand, but her parents might feel it is impractical to be studying music and design. I believe that any individual of capable thought should be allowed to seek out whatever path in life they wish, as long as they are not doing harm to others; when I have kids, I will have similarly open expectations of them as my parents had of me. Being allowed to experience two cultures growing up, Rose has the ability to transcend them both and be truly international; she’s the most assimilated of the four, and to these Kiwi eyes, the smartest and most interesting. She is the most like a Kiwi, and I respond well to that; however, I think it’s just as much the case that she is a special, unusually socially capable person.

With Lin, Tao focuses completely on the trials and tribulations she experiences leading up to the school ball. It’s a snapshot of the challenges our wonderful country presents, as well as a sometimes painful reminder of how god-damned difficult high school could be sometimes. Lin struggles to reconcile the ball with Chinese values; back home, she would be studying for exams, not having a night of fun. Indeed, she swings back and forth between whether to go or stay in studying, as she has trouble finding a dress and a partner. We have all had these impending major engagements that we worry about a great deal, thinking of all the things that can and surely will go wrong, only to find that everything comes together on the day. Somehow. I imagine she would have had similar problems with coming to New Zealand, but it looks like that worked out okay, too.

If Lin had difficulty getting her head around how things go in New Zealand, Jane flat out rejects them. She has no desire to enjoy this country the same way she enjoys her homeland. It’s just a step along the way, a period of her life best lived as alone as possible for fear of becoming attached to something she is sure she will soon leave behind. As Tao narrates, she is part of the group at school that remains quiet in the background – she is what most Kiwis would say is a ‘typical’ Asian student. She so misses home that she keeps her watch set to Beijing time. To me, this is a little bit sad, like she’s missing out on something that could be wonderful. That’s just my point of view, though. To her, the maximum amount of isolation is necessary to survive as the person she is. Where I would want to get to know as many different people as possible, she wants only to complete the qualifications and go back to where she is happy and feels comfortable. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

All this is particularly interesting to me, because I will soon become an outsider in a foreign country. I’m going to Japan next year, and I wonder, what will be the same? Will it be me switching off the lights and sobbing as I look at pictures of me with my family? Granted, I am older than these four were coming here, but I am sure some of my experiences won’t be too far removed from theirs. That’s the great beauty of this film: it gives you brief portraits of four very unique individuals, but contributes so much to our universal understanding of each other as a species. Equally as impressive, it does it without once hitting us over the head with an idea.

In the post-screening Q & A (or what I caught of it before running off to work), Tao stated that she ostensibly made the film for the parents of these international students, so that they could see what life was like for their children; however, upon completing it and showing it to others, she saw that it could have an impact on many Kiwi viewers. I would go further than that. I would suggest that, in a Western society that is increasingly assimilating itself with previously ignored (and even feared) cultures such as China, almost anyone could be moved to think deeply by this film. Of course there were a select few walkouts – we obviously still have some way to go – but too bad for them. Waves is a more insightful and provocative film about New Zealand and the global society than any that has been made for a long time.