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Uncovering Values in "Dwelling Narrowness"
The story is generally about a love affair between a middle-aged corrupt official and a young and pretty office clerk that ends in tragedy, intertwined with the life struggles of their relatives and others in a dynamic metropolis that’s growing at lightening speed and which in the film is known as Jiangzhou (江州), a fictionalized alias for Shanghai. The episode themes are said to be reflective of reality in present-day Shanghai: sugar-daddy love in the officialdom, corruption and cronyism in real estate, unaffordable housing in big cities, the nail-house narrative, exploited white-collars’ futile fight for justice and the invisible and omnipotent hand behind government dealings in a guanxi-oriented society.
Overall, the film tends to overly romanticize, to the point of almost complimenting adultery and finding excuses for philanderers, the love affair between Song Siming, the corrupt official, and Guo Haizao, the dreamy and naive young girl. Song is portrayed as a big-hearted and gentle lover whose only weakness is his altruistic and carnal love for Haizao, while his blatant betrayal of his wife and child is glossed over by his efforts in trying to spare time for them and provide half-hearted emotional comfort to them, as if this way his sins can be expiated. Worse is his reluctance to give a divorce to his wife when it is clear he no longer has feelings for her. But his betrayal of spousal trust, thirst for control and dominance, selfishness and lust are masked by his seemingly strong sense of responsibility towards his family and his commitment to Haizao and generosity towards her folks.
To make the love affair work, Haizao has a part too. She is shown to be a fickle person with no principles, one who is mesmerized by pleasures of the flesh and the illusion of power as experienced through watching Song solve problems for her. She’s impressed with his saying that if a problem can be solved by money, it is not a problem. Her scrambling back to Song as soon as her boyfriend Xiao Bei breaks up with her tells the audience that she has little qualm about having deeply hurt Xiao Bei in the first place by carrying on an affair behind his back. Although she is portrayed as the helpless victim in front of the ferocious wronged wife, she is not shown to have any qualm about breaking up Song’s family. Even after her mother explains to her that she’s being used by Song as a pawn in his grand scheme to further his corrupt deals, because by lavishing gifts and money on her he can get a solid sense of success that can spur him on, she would still not listen to reason.
If not for the sad ending of the love affair due to Song’s fall from power, he is almost a good man who, despite his infidelity, is able to take care of both his spouse’s and his mistress’ emotional and material needs, as well as their folks’ needs. It does not matter that his wealth comes from his corrupt deeds. With Song cast in such a light, it becomes a bit hard for the audience to reproach him for his philandering and keeping of a mistress. As long as young girls with pretty faces like Haizao are willing to become mistresses, then society can accept that – after all, society tends to look down on the poor, but not the prostitutes (笑貧不笑娼). The poor wife is even demonized as the jealous vengeful bitch who almost manages to kill the mistress in a fit of rage, perhaps to make the audience less sympathetic with her.
In short, the values of workplace scruples, fidelity in marriage, wholesome family relationship, honesty towards friends and family and self restraint all play second fiddle to money-worshipping.
The film goes a long way in saying that the Chinese society is still very much a male chauvinistic one even in this high tech age, which means that women are still very much economic dependents of men, which in turn makes it alright for women to become wealthy men’s mistresses, even if it means prostituting their self-respect and wrecking others’ families in the process. It points out that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a privileged group because of unyielding corruption is reinforcing this social mentality. Family and virtuous values are in danger of becoming extinct in this morality downward spiral.
Perhaps the tragic death of Song and the ultimate redemption of Haizao is a faint call for society to reflect more on the kind of values it wants to pass on to future generations.