China, 2009, colour, 1.85:1, 106 mins.
Director: An Zhanjun 安战军.
Likeable ensemble movie about Beijing backstreets life is smoothly directed and acted.
Jinyuchi neighbourhood, southern Beijing, the early 1990s. Though the area has long been marked for redevelopment, families still live crowded together in traditional courtyard houses. Easygoing shoe salesman He Laoer (Liu Hua), the middle of three brothers, is constantly nagged by his more ambitious wife Liu Yulan (Liu Lin) who, despite being heavily pregnant, is studying to get into university as a mature student. Elder brother, widower He Laoda (Feng Qian), has left his job and devotes his time to calligraphy, while his daughter He Yue (Wu Xiaodan) has problems with her jealous ex-boyfriend, musician Tang Qiulin (Wu Chao). The youngest brother, high-school teacher He Laosan (Xin Baiqing), is absorbed by writing a book on the environment and neglects his wife Zhang Meng (Wu Yue), who works in a newspaper office and has her own ambitions. During the summer, heavy rain causes part of the building to collapse, and the residents put pressure on the city authorities to get on with redeveloping the area. Meanwhile, the middle and younger brothers’ marriages come under severe strain.
The natural affinity of director An Zhanjun 安战军 for gruff but warm Beijing types, and the capital’s backstreets life (The Parking Attendant in July 看车人的七月, 2003; Hutong Days 胡同里的阳光, 2008), is again strongly in evidence in Glittering Days 万家灯火, which romanticises the natural community of oldstyle courtyard houses and tenement buildings while also showing the need for China to modernise its housing. The film is set during the 1990s, when many of Beijing’s famous hutong were still being (controversially) demolished, and, like several of An’s other films, could be seen as simply a piece of retro-doctrinaire cinema (Beijing Municipality was one of the producers). But the movie functions equally well as a human drama, thanks to An’s immensely fluid direction and a fine cast of distinctive actors. Working again with Niu Fuzhi 牛福智, the scriptwriter of Hutong Days, An again rises above the lecturing aspect of the basic material by making each character jump naturally off the screen.
Though its Chinese title is the same as that of the classic 1948 Shanghai tenement drama, Myriad of Lights, the film is actually based on a 2002 play (A Myriad of Twinkling Lights 万家灯火) by Beijing People’s Art Theatre playwright Li Longyun 李龙云, which he famously wrote in a 23-day burst of creative energy. Niu’s adaptation, with Li, opens the action out in a cinematic way without losing the important sense of community – beautifully choreographed in the film’s opening section, which shows the crowded but mutually supportive tenement/courtyard life of the He family. However, after the expansive first section, set across a hot/rainy Beijing summer, the development of some of the subplots during the subsequent three seasons (e.g. Laoda’s daughter’s boyfriend problem) is a bit perfunctory as everything is crammed into less than two hours.
Glittering Days is basically an above-average hutong light drama, but it truly is an ensemble picture, with no single character or couple dominating the action. Liu Hua 刘桦 and Liu Lin 刘琳 show an easy chemistry as the middle brother and his more ambitious wife; the relationship between the movie’s other main couple, the younger brother and his wife, is more forced and filmy, though Wu Yue 吴越 (Chrysanthemum Tea 菊花茶, 2001) is touching as the affection-starved wife. Among the older players, Liu Jinshan 刘金山 is likeable as a big bluff Beijing working type and veteran actress Jin Yaqin 金雅琴 good value for money as the family’s dowager empress who won’t be budged from the courtyard house she grew up in.
Presented by Beijing Forbidden City Film (CN), China Movie Channel (CN). Produced by China Movie Channel (CN), The CPC Beijing Municipal Publicity Department (CN), Beijing Municipal Bureau of Radio, Film & Television (CN), Beijing Forbidden City Film (CN).
Script: Li Longyun, Niu Fuzhi. Original play: Li Longyun. Photography: Su Li. Editing: Cheng Jie. Music: Yang Yilun. Songs: Jia Peng. Art direction: Wang Jing. Sound: Tian Kai. Associate director: Tian Zhen.
Cast: Liu Hua (He Laoer, middle brother), Xin Baiqing (He Laosan, youngest brother), Feng Qian (He Laoda, eldest brother), Liu Lin (Liu Yulan, He Laoer’s wife), Wu Yue (Zhang Meng, He Laosan’s wife), Jin Yaqin (He Laotai, brothers’ mother), Liu Jinshan (Rou Gulu/Meatball/Humpty Dumpty), Huang Haibing (Jia Ming, painter), Wang Changli (Tian), Wu Chao (Yang Qiulin, He Yue’s boyfriend), Wu Xiaodan (He Yue, He Laoda’s daughter), Gao Dongping (Maozi), Na Renhua (Yazhen, Yang’s mother), An Chenghao (Xiao Wei, He Laoer’s son), Song Chunli (warden), Li Tiejun (Housing Bureau chief), Shao Bo (property developer), Li Jianjun (policeman).
Release: China, 1 Sep 2009.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 17 Jun 2010.)