Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.
A Loner (2017)
Director Xing Xiao’s A Loner, a Shanghai International Film Festival premiere in June, is a quiet stage upon which the remarkable veteran actress Zhu Xijuan’s powerful performance enumerates the challenges facing China’s rapidly aging population.
The film is so quiet in fact (and in the last act suffers a bit under the weight of a blunt message about the importance of filial piety where it’s lacking in modern Chinese society), that it is not likely to get a theatrical run in North America. This is a shame because Zhu’s widow, living out her old age in solitude in an ancient Beijing courtyard home, reflects her status as one of the greats of Chinese cinema.
In 1961, just after Zhu graduated from the Shanghai Drama Academy, she starred as the lead in The Red Detachment of Women, directed by Xie Jin, one of the most revered directors of China’s revolutionary era. Her peasant-turned-revolutionary showed the can-do spirit and camaraderie of the time. The film was turned into a red ballet in 1964, which was later performed for Nixon on his visit to China in 1972.
It is fitting, more than five decades later, as China’s communist revolution is confronted with the coming costs of its One Child Policy—leaving elderly Chinese with too few young people to care for them in their dotage—that Zhu, now 79 and reportedly living in Los Angeles, should play Wei Daxue, the sweet oldster of the film’s title.
Bundled up against the winter wind amidst red ephemera in her tidy courtyard home down a sooty alley off of the lakes in the center of the modern capital, Wei is trapped in time signaled by the near omnipresent ticking of a clock. Along with the clock, the scratching of her little dog, Dongzi, the shrill wail of Beijing opera on the television, and the clunk of her cleaver as she minces leek and pork together for dumplings, combine into a sonic landscape that draws the audience into her solitude.
Her late husband (a suicide) stares down from the wall, his photograph smiling, yet melancholic. Her daughter, Fang, seldom has time for a visit and her grandson, Maomao, once on the phone with her is more interested in Dongzi the dog than he is in his wàipó. Widow Wei is at once selfless, telling those around her she doesn’t want to bother them, and self-absorbed, stuck in talking aloud with her late husband, unable to move past his loss and live in the present.
Wei walks past neighborhood ladies dancing together but can’t bring herself to join in. She shuffles past pensioners who ask after her well-being, but she grunts, barely audibly, and keeps on moving. She is a loner, trapped in the pain of her past. And then, Dongzi, her dog—the one being that snaps her into the present—runs off and things worsen.
When a young tenant’s father dies and he leaves Beijing for his countryside home because he’s “all his family has left,” she wishes him well, leaving a note of encouragement and appreciation that he’s doing the right thing by his mother, and then proceeds to descend deeper into her own isolation.
The film captures well the eerie, otherworldly quality of Beijing’s hutong alleyways, where the elderly sit in the sun against gray walls that have housed the capital’s oldest families for generations. The pigeons fly their coops, circling overhead, the winter cabbages stack up on the windowsills, the knife sharpener calls out from his slow-moving cart. A ceramic bust of Mao Zedong sits on her living room table.
Director Xing doesn’t show modern glass and steel Beijing at all, a remarkable feat for a story about the capital today. Despite long, lonely monologues Zhu delivers after a few cups of liquor, and reminiscences shared with Dongzi (when he’s still around), the film, ultimately, seems not to be so much about her past as it seems to be about China’s future. Because millions of children were not born under the state’s family planning, the country’s silver-haired population is about to experience the solitude of retirement and old-age without families (and workers) around them for support.
China’s senior citizens older than 65 are expected to rise in number to more than 329 million in 2050—more than the populations of Britain, France, Germany, and Japan combined—and up from roughly 100 million in 2005. Whereas China now boasts about five workers for every one retiree, there may be only 1.6 workers per retiree as soon as 2040.
A Loner is a carefully painted portrait of a slow train wreck. It’s a respectful, ruminative revelation of human loss and solitude, with Chinese characteristics. What would be lost on viewers in the West, should they get a chance to see the film, is why there is nostalgia among elderly Chinese for seemingly tougher times. Xing’s film feels slow and organic until, in the third act, the story takes on some of the feel of the propaganda of an earlier era in lead actress Zhu’s career. Director Xing plays with time and a dream (or is it a flashback?), that has the audience feeling like the story is suggesting that death in solitude—head-held-high, proud, revolutionary—would be better than life in loneliness, being ignored by one’s own children.
Widow Wei’s streak of self-reliance is one solution to the dissolution of the Chinese dream of yore that everybody would take care of each other, Xing seems to say. But his punches are thrown half-heartedly and, at times feel pulled, as if he were afraid to say outright: ‘Look what we’ve left our old folks with’ and is instead saying, “Look at the old folk, proud and selfless to the last.” One can’t be sure, but the end of the film feels like a forced compromise.
WHAT DOES THE GRADE MEAN?
Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison
- PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
- THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
- KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
- LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
- THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
- A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
- EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
- MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
- A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
- SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
- HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
- RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- DUCKWEED (2017, dir. Han Han)
- I BELONGED TO YOU (2016, dir. Zhang Yibai)
- THE GREAT WALL (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- OLD STONE (2016, dir. Johnny Ma)
- CRAZY STONE (2006, dir. Ning Hao)
- GO, LALA GO (2010, dir. Xu Jinglei)
- KUNG FU YOGA (2017, dir. Stanley Tong)
- RAILROAD TIGERS (2016, dir. Ding Sheng)
- THE WASTED TIMES (2016, dir. Cheng Er)
- CHONGQING HOT POT (2016, dir. Yang Qing)
- MONSTER HUNT (2015, dir. Raman Hui)
- JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK (2017, dir. Tsui Hark)
- SOME LIKE IT HOT (2017, dir. Song Xiaofei & Dong Xu)
- BORN IN CHINA (2016, dir. Lu Chuan)
- TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)