Bai Mengfan’s paintings are based on photographs she took in Beijing, Hong Kong, New York City, and Xi’an. Devoid of humans or animals, most of the paintings zoom closely in on depersonalized city surfaces, markings on the sandy texture of non-descript walls, crudely painted-over graffiti marks, shadows of lamp posts or electricity poles, yellow traffic-guiding lines stenciled with machines on pavements, or Chinese characters drawn with fingers on dirty windows in Xi’an. Two of the characters read, “freedom.” Then there are scenes of urban cityscapes and semi-public interiors: two stone lions in front of a big old willow tree, a little Pikachu figurine on the dashboard of a Hong Kong taxi cab, globe-like ceiling lamps in an indoor playground that look like moons or satellites in Long Island City, pale mist over the Chinese Sea and a distant bridge. Disembodied details of manmade structures. Snapshots. Coincidences. Fleeting fragments. Traces of time. What holds them all together is “Almost a love story.”
The title of the show comes from “Comrades, Almost a Love Story,” a 1996 film by Peter Chan. Banned in China for nineteen years, the film tells the tale of two migrant workers from the mainland who find and lose one another, who befriend and eventually love each other, first in Hong Kong and later in NYC.
The movie is very sweet, and I do not say this because the film’s feature song and its Chinese title is “Tian Mi Mi” (Sweet Like Honey), but because there is a certain toughness in the story’s tenderness, that goes hand in hand with the movie’s soundtrack and the signature sweetness of Teresa Teng songs. This sweetness is hard to explain. It’s neither bitter-sweet nor sour-sweet. It’s something of an almost otherworldly sensation that makes any uplift felt in spite, or because of everything else that keeps dragging us down.