Beijing Watermelon: The Return of a Drama Caught Between China and Japan, Reality and Fiction

There’s no such thing as a typical Nobuhiko Obayashi film. His 1977 feature House made his name in the U.S. when it took off as a midnight movie in 2009, and while its outlandishly weird fantasy definitely embodies a major strain of his oeuvre, it is just one. He also made documentaries on Russian life in the early ‘90s and the making of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, a made-for-TV movie about a man sitting at home reading a book, and an animated film set in Africa. Beijing Watermelon, currently being re-released in America, was actually his first film to get a run here, although it made little impact in 1990 (beyond reviews in the New York and L.A. Times).

Obayashi’s reputation has zoomed in the years following his death. It helps that his filmography bulges at the seams, with much, but not all, of it becoming accessible internationally (if not entirely legally.) On YouTube, the Obayashi Archive channel produces an annual video chronicling the progress on English-subtitled releases of all his films. In the ‘80s, Obayashi evolved out of making lighthearted family fare towards more ambitious projects that were still aimed at a wide audience, including children and teenagers. He synthesized this approach with techniques learned from his years making experimental shorts and commercials. There really isn’t a good American parallel for his work of this period, but it’s possible to imagine some of these films as Spielberg productions of the same period. (Think The Goonies and Gremlins.) Yet even at their slickest, they feel homemade. Special effects created with hand-drawn animation are an Obayashi trademark.

Beijing Watermelon is fairly uncharacteristic of this period. It’s a sober drama about a Japanese greengrocer Shunzo (Bengal) who befriends a group of Chinese college students at the store he owns near Tokyo. Before he meets Li (Wu Yue), he doesn’t realize just how unhappy he is with his own life. The students introduce him to their group of friends, and Shunzo starts spending most of his time with them. The economic differences between Chinese and Japanese people play a big role in the plot: Li can’t afford his prices for produce. Since the deposit on an apartment in Japan is the equivalent of two months’ salary in China, he decides to help the group of students out financially.  But his newfound joy takes a toll: good intentions can’t pay the bills, satisfy his family (his son decides to take another job rather than keep working for him), or preserve his health. While he faces xenophobia (getting nicknamed “the happy-go-lucky panda” in his neighborhood), his behavior isn’t entirely responsible. The stress contributes to a degree of exhaustion which lands him in the hospital.

Obayashi’s framing presents an inviting social space. Beijing Watermelon’s shots tend to be distant but crammed with activity. (Fifty-two minutes pass before the first close-up.)  The camera is positioned at the back of the grocery, looking out onto the street. Even trips to tourist traps, like an enormous statue of the Buddha, are deeply meaningful encounters. The final scene presents Chinese student musicians performing on a beach.

In several ways, Obayashi departed from conventions of naturalism, beyond simply making genre films. Casting Blossoms to the Sky refuses to give into the spectacle of war,relating the director’s experiences during WWII as a play written by a teenager, with child actors and cardboard sets. His special effects don’t attempt to be seamless or convincing; they acknowledge that we’re watching a movie. In one of its most startling maneuvers, Beijing Watermelon breaks the fourth wall by having Shunzo address the audience directly at an important moment. Obayashi’s story was inspired by his real encounters with Chinese students, and the options he had filming it were dictated by life. Additionally, the script alludes to Japan’s imperial history without laying out the full details. But when Shunzo says that his father went to China, he probably means helped the military occupy it.

Beijing Watermelon was shot in May and June 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre took place during this period, on June 4th,  preventing Obayashi and his cast from traveling to Beijing to work on the film, as they had originally planned. In this light, the subject of Chinese students wanting a different life outside their country takes on a political cast, even if they’re not spending their time protesting. This is one of the great examples of life’s circumstances dictating the course of a film. (Kevin Thomas wasn’t wrong to liken it to Frank Capra, but the meta humanism of Iranian films made around the same time comes closer.)  Obayashi cautiously avoids melodrama, and his tone remains optimistic, but the story is tempered by a sense of the limited options reality always brings. In  Beijing Watermelon, that notion gets played out in several ways.

“Beijing Watermelon” begins its 35th anniversary re-release Friday, with a one-week exclusive screening at New York’s Metrograph.

Steve Erickson (http://steeveecom.wordpress.com) lives in New York, where he writes for Gay City News, Artsfuse and Slant Magazine and produces music under the tag callinamagician (callinamagician.bandcamp.com).

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