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September 28, 2009

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Grandma the dancing queen

EARLY in the mornings, Lu Xun Park is bustling with gray-haired retirees doing the foxtrot - slow, slow, quick, quick, slow - or the waltz, the tango or two-step, and singing to old recorders and karaoke equipment.

This, and many other parks, are magical places with the feel of the everyday lives of ordinary, older Shanghainese. They can express their spirit, recapture their lost youth, make friends and be grassroots dancing stars in the park.

Retired worker Zhang Lili in her 50s is one of them, sometimes considered the China's "forgotten generation."

Like many of her urban peers, her life was derailed in the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when she was sent off from Shanghai to far northern Heilongjiang Province for reeducation through labor. She was a middle school student at the time.

These people and their compelling stories, the stories of China, are almost never the subject of films or TV these days - they're not glamorous - and urban young people don't identify with their parents' generation's struggles.

But those born in the late 1950s and grew up with the newly founded People's Republic of China wanted to help build it.

Now Zhang and others like her will star in a new film "Quick, Quick, Slow" to be released nationwide on October 8, with both English and Chinese subtitles. It also will be screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival from October 15-25.

Zhang plays a middle-aged housewife in the film about a group of people - all once were sent down to the countryside - who decide to form a ballroom dance team. The film by director Ye Kai is set in a Shanghai neighborhood in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It's dedicated to his parents' generation.

"Quick, Quick, Slow" stars unknowns, except for Yao Anlian who appeared in Wang Xiaoshuai's "Shanghai Dreams."

The characters include a security guard in his mid-life crisis, a desperate housewife, a fame-seeker and her admirer and an odd couple in their 50s. They struggle and practice to turn their dream into reality.

Most of the cast went through reeducation in the countryside in rural areas of China during the "cultural revolution." The story is interspersed with interviews with the actors, describing their life of toil - not without its pleasures - in rural collectives.

The real-life stories, some very painful, are told without rancor and viewers can feel the enthusiasm of the older generation about building China and being part of the new nation.

"I used to work in the fields and factories," Zhang recalls. "Life was not easy but we were still happy and optimistic."

Though Zhang missed out on higher education that would have meant a different life, she considers those days in the harsh and remote countryside rewarding because they taught her to be independent and strong.

At times, she can't help but regret her vanished youth.

"It is hard to imagine our deep love for our nation," Zhang says. "Perhaps we are really too ordinary, but we are not fragile and hollow inside. We don't ask much and we are ready to offer a helping hand to others."

Zhang is now a part-time dance teacher for children in her community. Lu Xun Park is still her favorite spot.

"I can feel the kindness and honesty from many strangers there," Zhang says. "I used to skip breakfast for the dance exercises. A laid-off woman worker often bought me steamed buns and fried bread sticks."

Director Ye, who was born in the 1980s, says the older generation deserves attention and respect. "Only in this way can the young generation cherish their heritage and not dream away the best years of their lives."

Yang Wenfang, who plays a rigorous "demon coach" for the dance team in the movie, was discovered by chance by director Ye at the Paramount Party Room.

"I was attending a ball and director Ye came up to me, asking me to take part in a film. At first I thought it was a trick since I am no longer young and handsome.

"When I learned the film would portray the real lives and passion of our generation, I was touched and accepted his invitation."

According to Zhang Lanxin, the film's producer, the film makers visited many city parks and recreation centers to discover actors. The performances, though not polished or sophisticated, are full of sincerity and emotion.

Zhang Lili, Yang and other actors will also perform on the televised dance program "Let's Shake It" along with popular 60-year-old community mediator Bai Wanqing.

Bai, who was sent down to Jiangxi Province for reeducation, says dancing is a daily exercise for her. She has set up a dance team for senior citizens.

"Older people can dance their way into improved health and happiness," Bai says. "For those who feel isolated and lonely, dance can also bring social and health benefits from touching another human being."

Currently, 10 percent of Chinese are aged 60, and the proportion is estimated to hit 30 percent by 2050, according to Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. This group has witnessed turmoil as well as economic development and opening-up. Their children live a much better material life.

Moderate exercise is recommended for older people to lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and other ailments. They should keep warm to guard against catching cold or flu.


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