Unlike my colleagues in NYFCO (New York Film Critics Online) who review movies for a living and have to put up with the latest dreck out of Hollywood, I can pick and choose what I watch and write about. Even not having movies like Neil Labute’s racist garbage to use as a benchmark, I am confident that there is nothing more worth seeing than “Taking Father Home,” a Chinese movie made without governmental approval for less than $5000.
The plot revolves around 17 year old Xu Yun’s search for his father, who abandoned his impoverished rural Sichuan family six years earlier for a better life on his own as a construction worker in the city of Zigong. In other words, the movie describes the current reality for hundreds of millions of Chinese families.
Xu Yun is played by a nonprofessional actor named Xu Yun. His character is not “dramatized” for the conventional expectations of most movie-goers but instead is presented as a sullen, inexpressive youth on a single-minded mission. It is clear that filial devotion means much less to him than simply tracking down somebody in the style of a bounty hunter, with pretty much the same goal: to get his family’s hands on some income.
In the course of his odyssey, he runs into two adult benefactors. One is a petty criminal he meets on the bus who warns him about the need to toughen himself up in order to meet the challenges of the city. The other is a cop who began to look after him after the criminal misled Xu Yun into moving into a supposedly rent-free apartment. When the landlord shows up and discovers the unintentional squatter, he calls the police.
As grim as the story sounds (and much of it is grim), it is also a laugh-out-loud comedy for those who prefer their laughs martini-dry. In other words, it is for Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki fans. In a continuing visual joke, Xu Yun carries a basket filled with two geese that he intends to sell in the city in order to keep him afloat. The geese deserve an Academy Award far more than “comedians” like Robin Williams or Adam Sandler ever did.
There are also comic scenes that have a kind of whacked-out sensibility associated with minimalist films everywhere. When Xu Yun finds himself on a bench in the local jail, he is witness to the cops trying to rein in one of their prisoners, an intoxicated middle aged man who has been charged with defecating near a public statue. He runs around the station threatening to commit the crime once again, since it is good to “observe nature”.
Xu Yun is in a race for time, since an impending flood threatens to swamp the city and deter him from his goal. Dramatizing this plot element was clearly abetted by the experience director Ying Liang had making the movie in Sichuan province at the very time the earthquake struck. Liang and his producer Peng Shan assumed duties helping others. The press notes for the movie states: “Peng Shan and I didn’t take one single shot during our half-month stay in the disaster area. Instead, we participated in organizing medical teams; psychological treatment teams and helped in saving whatever crops we could. We were glad to be able to help. Over the next few years, I would not make any film related to the earthquake. Film should always remain humble in front of life.”
“Taking Father Home” is now showing at the Pioneer Theater in New York and should not be missed by anybody the least bit curious about life in China today and who enjoys sophisticated comedy.
The fact that such an excellent movie can be made for less than $5000 has also gotten me thinking about the film industry in the last day or so. For movie-goers like me who came of age in the early 1960s, it is difficult to accept that the age of Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa et al is gone forever. The movies they made, however, could only be made with budgets that would be far out of reach for somebody like Ying Liang. 35 millimeter cameras, tracking shot trollies, lighting for night-time and indoor scenes, and a large staff of technical assistants would require millions of dollars. But digital cameras today make the playing field much leveler, just as the Internet does for journalism. The accomplishments of Ying Liang and many others like him in the developing world is testament once again that history moves two steps forward and one step backward.