By Francisco Lo
Going into HKIFF, I expected to see great films by the trusted auteurs, and the likes of Hong Sang-soo (In Another Country, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon) and Olivier Assayas (Après Mai) did not disappoint me. But another crucial part of my festival experience was discovering the unknown pleasures that may not get any sort of wide distribution. Among the lesser-known names, two Chinese films stood out in this year’s festival.
Fresh from the Forum section in this year’s Berlinale, Forgetting to Know You is directed by writer-turned-filmmaker Quan Ling. With Jia Zhang-ke—the most celebrated Chinese filmmaker among critics in the West—on board as producer, the first-time director certainly gets more than a stamp of approval. The presence of Jia’s longtime cinematographer Yu Lik-wai ensures an expertly shot picture but the comparison between the two should end there.
In her debut feature, Quan fashions a story of a faltering middle-class marriage without touching on any of the political themes that are seen in Chinese films lauded in the international festival circuit. Xuesong (Tao Hong) runs a corner store and her husband Cai (Guo Xiaodong) is a carpenter looking for funding to take over the struggling factory he works for.
Seven years into their marriage, they have seemingly lost interest in each other and their young daughter seems to be the only thing that ties them together. Xuesong’s discontent is manifested in her flirtatious relationship with young cab driver Wu (Zi Yi) while Cai’s obsession with succeeding in the business world by constantly comparing himself with his wife’s ex-boyfriend pushes her further away.
Quan shows the keen sense of a writer in her depiction of two well-crafted characters. Her take on Cai using his ambition to prove his masculinity is revelatory of a man under the mounting pressure of a fast-growing economy. Quan excels in portraying his insecurities with nuances and details.
The film wouldn’t be half as good if not for the terrific performance by lead actress Tao Hong, who exhibits equal parts of angst and grace in a character that is defined by her opaque intentions. However, as contempt poisons the marriage to a breaking point, the narrative loses its footing towards the last twenty minutes and its seemingly abrupt ending is only a symptom in this quandary.
In filmmaking couple Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka’s Trace, marriage is cast in a much more favorable light. Their travelogue was originally intended as a memento dedicated to their newborn daughter’s first trip to her mother’s hometown in Qinglang, China. Hence the use of non-professional DV camera is an aesthetic choice, reflecting the intimacy of this homespun project.
The main goal of their trip is to secure their baby’s residency in order for her to apply for a Chinese passport. The issue of national identity is inadvertently tied to politics for this Chinese-Japanese family because, at the time of their trip, the historic bad blood between the two countries was exacerbated by the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Anti-Japanese banners are common in the city streets as state television stokes the fire of national pride. Fortunaely, Huang’s family members lovingly embrace their Japanese in-law Otsuka and baby Chihiro (named after the protagonist of Spirited Away) as their show of affection is appropriately captured by Huang’s intimate home video.
The personal journey of this multinational family makes the political posturing perpetrated by the masses look awfully silly. Moreover, since Huang is the primary camera operator, the film spends a good chunk of its time showing Otsuka taking care of their infant. It is refreshing to see a charming and humorous couple whose take on parenting is far from the stereotypical gender roles—a rarity not only in Chinese cinema but in Western media portrayal as well.
Though Trace has none of the astute framing in Huang’s Rotterdam-winning debut Egg and Stone (shot by Otsuka), the filmmakers display brilliant instincts in constructing this 72-minute documentary from their deceivingly amateurish footage. Their images convey the sort of directness and authenticity that is rare in most documentaries coming from a first-person POV. That alone is a good enough reason for me to look forward to their future projects.
Francisco Lo started Film Monitor with a few like-minded friends in February 2008 as a way to dispense thoughtful film criticism to Houstonians in print. Besides writing reviews and interviewing filmmakers, he also enjoyed collaborating with local artists and writers for the purpose of creating a modest yet elegant publication that is more than the sum of its parts. After leaving Houston in early 2013, he started to write for The Film Stage and In Review Online while continuing to post reviews on Film Monitor’s website (www.filmmonitor.org). As a fan of film photography and handmade postcards, he recognizes his soft spot for the dying arts.