|Sidney Bata, Director of Ateneo de Manila University|
Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies
Seeing two films on the opening day of the 11th Spring Film Festival at the Shang Cineplex was my way of catching up after missing this prelude to the Chinese New Year since 2014. In between the viewings, I soaked in the opening night festivities to welcome not just the film festival but also the Year of the Rooster that included a traditional lion dance, an art exhibit, a saxophone serenade, and even a fashion show where ladies walked the ramp wearing traditional Chinese garments.
A fully loaded day made me miss Red Amnesia/闯入者 during the press preview. But my interest with the Cultural Revolution prompted me to catch it at the festival’s regular run. Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, the film is the final installment of his Cultural Revolution trilogy along with Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers.
At the forefront is the outstanding performance by Lü Zhong as the stubborn elderly widow Deng Meijuan who is bent on making herself useful in her old age by not only taking care of her grown up sons Jun (Feng Yuanzheng) and Bing (Qin Hao), but also of her grandson, and mother residing at a nursing home. Her daily routine goes like clockwork until she starts getting mysterious, anonymous phone calls.
For me it wasn’t just the mystery of these phone calls that slowly unfold throughout the course of the film that had me hooked. What actually gripped me more was the glimpses of family life, especially the tension among the generations, in contemporary, fast paced China. Deng’s continued interference with her sons’ daily lives has caused tension between her and Jun’s wife Lu (Qin Hailu). Although mostly left unsaid, it wasn’t hard to read her disapproval of her younger son Bing’s lifestyle and choice of partner. And to my surprise, Deng took it upon herself to take care of her own mother, thus showing her both as a parent/grandparent and as a daughter. And the scenes at the nursing home showed the pitiful state of the elderly who are primarily neglected by their children who are enjoying the country’s economic boom.
As for the mystery, it was plain to see that the unnamed boy (Shi Liu) insistently crossing paths with Deng is the one behind all this. While his motives took a while before they were revealed, how he managed to pull everything off, upon knowing who he is and where he came from, had me scratching my head.
Familiarity with China’s history, especially the Cultural Revolution, paid off for me as the film had more impact and weight than just another mystery drama. The scenes of Deng, stopping by to listen at elderly people singing communist songs, gave more insight to her character’s past. And not showing any flashbacks served the film better like when Jun told Bing through a simple conversation the drastic measures their mother took to ensure their future. And when she finally repaid her debt and atoned for her sins of the past, none emerged from it unscathed but it was satisfying.
Going through Red Amnesia got me on course to figure out how on earth I would be able to see the other two films comprising of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Cultural Revolution trilogy. I don’t know how I’d forgive myself had these two films been shown in previous editions of the Spring Film Festival.
After enjoying the opening night program and having my fill of generous servings of noodles, pork buns, and dumplings, I was in high spirits getting into my second film of the day, Everybody’s Fine/切都好.
A Chinese remake of the 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene, this movie directed by Zhang Meng follows widower Guan Zhiguo (Zheng Guoli) as he travels throughout China and beyond in search of his four children who bailed on their annual family get together. Once he gets to see all but one of his children, he realizes that his memory of them when they were kids, and what he has perceived as their current overachieving lives are anything but fine.
As Guan encounters the disappointment of the marital problems of his eldest daughter Qing (Yao Chen), the financial risk taking of his son Quan (Shawn Dou), the non-existent ballet career of youngest daughter Chu (Ye Chianyun), and the unknown whereabouts of youngest son Hao (Chen He), one couldn’t help but pity and somehow root for him. And not surprisingly, a medical emergency befalling Guan is what it takes to force the family back together with everything all right and even the mystery surrounding Hao finally resolved.
Coming right after seeing a highly nuanced Red Amnesia, Everybody’s Fine was too forced and the sappiness was too much too bear. I wasn’t able to hurdle the idea of a Chinese family with four children in the first place. And the characters that Guan during his travels, while offering cute moments, were totally inconsequential to the story. I suspect that these were notable cameos by established actors but not being that immersed with Chinese cinema, the charm was lost in me. Having not seen the original Italian film nor the 2009 Hollywood remake starring Robert de Niro, I cannot comment on how this version would fare compared to its predecessors.
Everybody’s Fine attempt to wrap up everything nicely, with everyone being um, fine and anything bad getting swept under the rug, ended up too romanticized and very saccharine.
Red Amnesia and Everybody’s Fine are just two of the six films screening for free at the 11th Spring Film Festival at the Shang Cineplex until January 29, 2017. Other events in line with the festival include the Confucius Institute at the Ateneo de Manila University Chinese Painting Exhibit on view until January 31, 2017, An Afternoon of Beautiful Chinese Melodies: Chinese Music Concert by the Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University on January 28, 2017, 3:00 PM, and A Pastel Painting Workshop with Master Fidel Sarmiento, President of the Art Association of the Philippines on January 29, 2017, 1:00 PM.