If you think disaffected white teenagers in the U.S. and U.K. have the market cornered on punk rock, think again. At its purest, punk was a primal yawl emanating from lower-income neighborhoods where young people saw little hope of getting out of their predetermined molds. An uncaring government, an unfair economic market, and a general lack of opportunity for education, jobs, or even just something to do on a Friday night pushed dreamers into their garages where they banged out a couple of chords and prayed someone would hear. With China being several decades behind the rest of the world in terms of pop culture due to many of the exact same conditions I just described, it was only a matter of time before the country would have its own wannabe-Johnny Rottens armed with a guitar and a very basic understanding of Nietzsche, thinking that 1977 was only five minutes ago. The four guys in Joyside have glommed onto the ethos with a tenacious fervor, ambassadors of punk straight outta Beijing.
Of course, as those of us who hung out with punk kids in high school are well aware, punk doesn't always draw in the best and the brightest. Its main emissaries are those who have no other tools for expression, and so the music is often devoid of any deeper meaning than a desire to party, and partying tends to supercede the need to practice and the pursuit of musical excellence. Put a camera in front of these obnoxious clowns and prepare yourself for a lot of beer belches, pimples, and endless retarded mugging. This is the price we pay for rebellion, apparently.
First-time filmmaker Kevin Fritz set out to capture both of these things when he started to chronicle Joyside in 2003, documenting their first-ever nationwide tour as Wasted Orient: A Film About Joyside. Sadly, though Fritz had the noble goal of capturing the political and social side of the struggle to bring rock 'n' roll to a country that doesn't understand it and may not even want it, what he has put together to share with the masses leans far too heavily to the hangovers and the farting, with the music rising somewhere in the middle like a lost boot in a polluted river. Reading Fritz's director's statement that comes along with the Wasted Orient DVD, I realized this movie was quite obviously one of those cases where intentions did not necessarily equal results.
Capturing life and music as it "really happens" is a fine idea, but the problem is that once Fritz decided to crystallize his footage in this thing called Wasted Orient, he gave the material a defacto context. He created a frame for his story, but it was up to him to make sure that what was inside that frame was the picture he intended us to see. Though Fritz wanted his portrait of Joyside to speak of a greater cultural movement and the purpose these four young men serve in it, he spends little time trying to push that part of the agenda. The band members can only express themselves in drunken rambles, barely touching on the issue at hand, either ending in vomit or in some sad adolescent speech about how life has no meaning. Fritz needed to maybe step away and explore more to find the China that exists beyond the band, the thing that they are kicking against.
Instead, the filmmaker stays with the group exclusively, stringing together a tedious pattern of drunken train rides, killing time before the show, a song at the show, and then on to the next train ride. There's only so much boredom, drinking, and pimple popping that can be interesting, particularly given that Fritz isn't very good at getting the four musicians to open up. Rather than having the guitarist Yang Yang talk more in depth about what it means to be a Japanese immigrant playing in a Chinese punk band, we get footage of him tasting different kinds of bugs for sale at the market. The partying isn't exactly Hammer of the Gods material, either. Not unless one requires a hammer to push in a thumbtack. At one point, one of the band members makes a sign advertising that Joyside likes "Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Given that we see no drugs and none of them even get close to getting laid, we'll have to take their love of the holy trinity of rock as a metaphorical concept rather than a reality. Sadly, this is not the choice that makes for better viewing.
Still, this leaves the music. If the cinematic painting Fritz edits together of Joyside isn't particularly interesting offstage, how do they fare onstage? So-so. The band's music is pretty much Punk Rock For Beginners. The guys reference Johnny Thunders quite often, and most of their songs sound like watered-down Heartbreakers and New York Dolls outtakes (we even get covers of "Born to Lose" and "Lonely Planet Boy"). One exception is the song "Johnny Rotten," which sounds (surprise, surprise) exactly like a Sex Pistols rip-off. It's hard to say whether or not Joyside's lyrics pack much punch, because even though I think they mainly sing in English, it's nearly impossible to decipher what they are saying. With titles like "I Wanna Beer" and "I Wanna Piss Around You," I'm guessing these alcoholic waters don't run very deep.
With all that said, music fans may find Wasted Orient: A Film About Joyside somewhat interesting. Obscure, out-of-the-way scenes are the backbones of musical movements, and there is about half a snapshot here of one band's attempts to get their own mini-revolution started. Maybe with a bigger bank account and some added resources, Kevin Fritz could have gotten closer to what he wanted to do. I guess that's punk rock all on its own, though--struggling for something greater than you with the tools available. In that sense, I tip my ancient Social Distortion cap to you, sir. Keep trying for that cigar!
For a film shot on rented Chinese cameras, I will give Kevin Fritz credit for how good Wasted Youth looks. Yes, it's raw video, but he uses that to his advantage to show the squalor and the decay of the Chinese backstreets, and the zits-and-all shots of Joyside are so unpretty, you can practically smell the stale beer. The image is full frame (1.33:1) and free of glitches.
A straightforward Dolby mix is easy to hear, and the subtitles are well written and nicely paced.
The interior booklet contains artwork and the director's statement referenced in my review. There are also six minutes of deleted scenes, comprising of two additional Joyside performances and one extra scene of the lead singer, Bian Yuan, puking.
Wasted Orient: A Film About Joyside is a bit of a wasted opportunity. I was pretty stoked to see this film. I like Chinese culture, I like punk rock, and I like stories about struggling artists, especially bands. Rather than giving us a stronger understanding of the burgeoning punk scene in China, director Kevin Fritz created a repetitive tour document that seems more concerned with how much beer the guys in Joyside can consume than what is really going on in their heads. (Or, if there's nothing going on in their heads, we need to be told that for sure, as well.) There are germs of something more interesting in this film, but in its current state, Wasted Orient is merely a one-time deal. Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.