In 2021, a generation of disillusioned youth in China decided to step off the hamster wheel and “lie flat” on the ground. Crushed by overbearing workloads with no long-term reward in the form of job security or home ownership, young people indulged in the “tang ping” resistance movement, which advocated for manageable working hours and a quality of life — all of which were the antithesis of China’s punishing 9-9-6 work culture — working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.
It’s this tang ping generation that Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen is speaking to in his latest film, “The Breaking Ice.” The movie, which premieres in Un Certain Regard at Cannes on May 21, follows three young people who hit the road together after their lives intersect unexpectedly.
“In recent years, and in recent contemporary cinema in China, no one has really tried to do a real portraiture of it what feels to be a young person in China,” says Chen, who was speaking to Variety from Beijing, where a selection of his films had been screened at the city’s international film festival.
“When I look at the films that are made about young people, it’s this very saccharine, vanilla, romantic drama. And I don’t really believe those characters. They feel so made up, and as though they exist for some kind of fantasy off screen.”
“The Breaking Ice” is a love letter to Chinese youth. It’s also a vessel that’s allowed the celebrated filmmaker — who won the Camera d’Or in Cannes 10 years ago for his acclaimed debut feature “Ilo Ilo” — to enter the Chinese market on his own terms.
“I’ve always been courted and invited to shoot a film in China, but I’ve always been very passive,” says Chen, who recently moved with his family from London, his home of 17 years, to Hong Kong. “I’ve never said yes to anything because I didn’t want to be a [work-for-hire] director.”
But a press trip to the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2021 changed his mind. Chen, who has a large following in China, was constantly questioned by local critics and journalists about his meticulously planned and executed movies. “They were asking me, ‘Anthony, your films are so precise; it feels like you’re quite a control freak. We wonder what an Anthony Chen film would be like if you were less controlling of everything?’”
And so Chen relinquished control — at least a little bit. Suddenly finding himself with a window of time one winter between projects, the filmmaker flew to China to make a movie, without any form of script in hand. The resulting project — written in a matter of days in a hotel during quarantine — is informed by the extensive research Chen carried out on the youth culture in China.
“I was reading so many articles about the lost generation of China. Young people have all these struggles and anxieties about working so hard, [and] being able to own things like their parents. What does it really lead to? And it’s not just about China; it’s a common set of issues for young people around the world who are searching for their own purpose.”
“The Breaking Ice” is set in Yanji, a border city in north China that feels more like Korea, and filmed around the Changbai Mountains. Chen and his actors, which include major Chinese stars Dongyu Zhou, Haoran Liu and Chuxiao Qu, filmed for 38 days with wintry scenes shot in temperatures that reached -18 degrees Celsius.
“I literally put myself completely outside of my comfort zone,” laughs Chen.
In the backdrop of the film is a manhunt of a North Korean defector — a through-line that was informed by Chen’s own experience while scouting locations. “During our time there, there were [wanted] posters everywhere of this person, where a lot of money was being offered [for information about him],” he explains.
The film, however, never explicitly discusses what’s on the other side of the border — and perhaps for good reason. Chen is eager for it to release in China (it was funded by Huace Pictures), and it has so far passed censors to secure the Dragon Seal, which is a strong indication that it will ultimately hit movie theaters.
“I’m hoping that [Chinese youth] can connect with it, maybe in a spiritual way, with one of the characters or the themes I’m trying to explore,” says Chen. “This is a film about young people finding their spiritual freedom and, in a way, both in front of and behind the camera, it’s also me finding my spiritual freedom and breaking out of a box.”