Using (2007) Movie Review

Using (2007) Movie PosterScreening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.

“Using” was Chinese documentary director Zhou Hao’s follow up to his much loved and critically praised high school doc “Senior Year”, and is a very different proposition indeed. The 2007 film is right at the other end of the spectrum, with Zhou focusing on a low level Guangzhou drug dealer and heroin user called Ah Long – a controversial subject and a subculture very rarely covered by mainstream Chinese media. Shot over a period 3 years, the film follows Ah Long through his many ups and downs and charts not only his attempts to make money and stay one step ahead of the law, but his relationship with his girlfriend and fellow addict, Ah Jun.

“Using” is an absolutely fascinating documentary on a number of different levels. Right from the start, which includes shots of drug users cleaning needles with water and of Ah Long visiting a possibly dying addict under a bridge and trying to get in touch with his parents, it’s pretty clear that this is a very unique film, offering a glimpse of a dark and rarely seen side of Chinese society. The film certainly is harrowing, and with Zhou Hao following his subjects for such a long period of time, it features a great many details about their wretched, yet recognisable lives, and captures some grim imagery of drug dens and of people living in appalling conditions. It’s easy to see why the film might be considered controversial, as there are a lot of tough scenes, and it offers a non-judgemental and humanistic picture of a criminal, dealing with theme of addiction and poverty in the process – things very rarely seen on the Chinese screen, at least not without a condemnatory tone.

The film is also emotionally engaging, with a great structure and powerful storytelling that helps to give it a deeply personal feel. The moving relationship between Ah Long and Ah Jun grounds the film and ensures that the viewer never loses sight of them as human beings. The way in which Ah Long’s addiction, schemes, run-ins with the law and many failures fail to push Ah Jun away is very affecting, and keeps the viewer caring and wondering how things will turn out for them.

Four Clips from “Using”

At the same time, there’s far more to “Using” than a mere drug shock expose, and perhaps even more intriguing is the way in which the film questions and blurs the relationship between Zhou Hao and his subject Ah Long. Far from being cold or simply observational, the film clearly sees the director and the dealer becoming friends, with Zhou talking to him from behind the camera, visiting him in hospital, listening to his stories as if taking confession, and lending him money seemingly every time they meet. There’s genuine warmth to the strange bond which develops, and this of course serves to make the film even more interesting, not to mention difficult, as it becomes clear that Ah Long is increasingly twisting the truth and lying about a lot of different aspects of his life. This raises questions of exploitation and ethics, and as to which of the two men is truly using the other, something which Zhou is clearly aware of, though never attempts to draw any trite conclusions about.

It’s this multi-layered approach and depth that make “Using” such an engrossing and unique piece of documentary film making, again proving Zhou Hao to be one of the most talented directors in the field. As well as exploring in startlingly open fashion the relationship between a documentarian and his subject, the film offers a look at this kind of modern Chinese subculture that would be very difficult to do in a fiction film – though interestingly enough, the film has apparently attracted the eye of Hong Kong producers, who plan to make it into a feature.

Zhou Hao (director)