Yang Huilong’s “Today and Tomorrow” – 2013 Tokyo Film Review

Much has been documented about the rise of the upper class in China, with the country outspending previously top-ranked Germany in global tourism and, according to The Wall Street Journal, now serving as home to 6 percent of individuals worldwide whose fortunes exceed US$50 million.

But with a population of more than 1 billion people, certain demographic segments are bound to be left behind.  One of these is the “ant tribe,” a phrase created by university professor Lian Si in 2009 to describe a group of about 1 million university graduates who are unable to find their ideal jobs.  As a result, they choose menial work in a big city over suitable employment in a smaller market, living in impoverished conditions with the hope that they can somehow climb to where they desire to be.

Yang Huilong’s narrative feature, “Today and Tomorrow,”  focuses on three friends and members of this “ant tribe”: Wang, a junior insurance salesman; Ran Ran, an aspiring fashion designer who is a tailor for a sleazy boss; and Jie, Ran Ran’s freeloading unemployed boyfriend.  Barely scraping by, they aspire to ditch the slum but this proves difficult when even 1 yuan (US$0.13) is worth more to them than gold.  As the pressure to pay rent and fend off negative elements rises, their goal of lifting themselves out of migrant status wanders in the opposite direction.  External factors eventually force them to make significant decisions, as the government plans to evict everyone in their village of Tang Jialing (northwest of Beijing and the real-life site of the largest concentration of the “ant tribe” in 2010).

Yang’s thought-provoking directorial debut serves as a disturbing magnifying glass on a potential “lost generation” of Chinese society.  Wang, Ran Ran and Jie deal with their inability to advance their careers in different ways, but it is Wang who displays the most optimism in his pursuit of the Chinese Dream.  In one scene, he finds a wrinkled headshot on the ground of Internet entrepreneur Jack Ma, then the CEO of the Alibaba Group, and hangs it on his wall.  However, costly choices – some influenced by the pursuit of capitalism at all costs – become obstacles in his path, and the same holds true for his friends Ran Ran and Jie.

While the Chinese government did succeed in its displacement of Tang Jialing residents, in some cases this merely pushed young people to continue their existences in other districts and towns.  Meanwhile, real-life members of the “ant tribe” whose lives may be identical to a Wang, a Ran Ran or a Jie continue to wallow in anonymity.  In “Today and Tomorrow,” Yang reminds us that the quest for the almighty yuan may not be worth the personal toll.

“Today and Tomorrow” makes its world premiere at the 2013 Tokyo International Film Festival.  It screens on Oct. 18 and 20.  For ticket information, go to the TIFF website.