China, 2010, colour, 16:9, 110 mins.
Director: Zhang Jiabei 张加贝.
Well shot but over-cool tale of friendship between a Chinese boy and Japanese girl in the aftermath of the War.
Northern China, c. 1945. Gao (Li Yi), originally from Shanxi province, works as a rickshaw puller for a Japanese family which has voluntarily stayed on in a Chinese town as a form of personal penance for what happened during Sino-Japanese War: the entomologist father, Fujino Shuhei (Kazama Toru), is researching insects harmful to wheat and rice at the local Agricultural Institute, and his young daughter Sachi (Sasaki Mao) attends an international school, where she is subject to abuse from other pupils. Gao’s young son Gao Wuyin (Yao Dingnan) despises his father for working for the family and initially refuses to befriend Sachi. Gradually, however, he yields to the lonely girl’s friendly overtures, and tells her about a magical “dreaming wall” (an ancient, earth-built rampart) near his home village in Shanxi. When news comes that the Fujino family is soon to be transported back to Japan, Sachi is sad to be leaving behind her new friend. After Gao Wuyin’s father again insists on staying where they are so he can find further work, the two children steal away on a train to visit the “dreaming wall” on their own.
The little-known subject of Japanese who stayed on in China after the end of the Sino-Japanese War forms the background to Dreaming Wall 梦墙, a simple tale of friendship between two kids, Wuyin and Sachi, divided by their nationalities. Though the central, miniature-sized story is told with a mixture of realism and charm – with the scruffy, taciturn Chinese boy endlessly berating both the Japanese family and his father who works for them – the subject demands more background than is provided by the script (adapted from the 1983 story 梦の壁 [“Wall of Dreams”] by Kato Yukiko 加藤幸子) and a brief historical introduction at the start. One early sequence, set in an international school attended by Sachi where she’s abused by her fellow pupils, is clumsily written and acted in English, and could easily be removed, especially as it’s also atypical of the rest of the sparsely dialogued movie.
Director Zhang Jiabei 张加贝 is best known for the fine rural drama Cherries 樱桃 (2007) but has actually spent most of his career in documentaries, including the 2002 The World of Zhang Yimou 电影导演张艺谋的世界. More to the point, he’s one of the very few Chinese directors to have studied in Japan (under Imamura Shohei 今村昌平), subsequently working as an assistant to Shindo Kaneto 心藤兼人 and Yanagimachi Mitsuo 柳町光男. Made with a mixed Chinese and Japanese crew, Dreaming Wall is shot by d.p. Nakazawa Masayuki 中泽正行 with a visual precision and cool artistry that’s very different from the more emotionally engaged Cherries, and though the film makes earthy use in the second half of the dusty desert locations the central relationship between the two children doesn’t resonate as much as it should. It’s a movie to admire from a distance, rather than one that taps its little-known subject matter as deeply as it could.
Presented by Spring & Autumn Times Culture (CN), Beijing Taiyang Feiyu International Culture (CN), Beijing Hemingliang Culture Investment (CN). Produced by Spring & Autumn Times Culture (CN).
Script: Ishikura Yasushi. Original story: Kato Yukiko. Photography: Nakazawa Masayuki. Editing: Qiqige. Music: Nanase Hikaru. Music production: Ito Yoshiyuki. Art direction: Pei Yan. Costumes: Kong Yafang. Sound: Liu Yinghao. Executive director: Gao Qi.
Cast: Sasaki Mao (Fujino Sachi, daughter), Yao Dingnan (Gao Wuyin), Kobayashi Ayako (Fujino Sawako, mother), Kazama Toru (Fujino Shuhei, father), Li Yi (Gao, Gao Wuyin’s father), Fan Shuzhen (Uncle Min), Deng Ziyi (international school teacher), Huang Jia’ni (Lili, school pupil), Marina (Indian pupil), Chi Han, Yan Chao (school pupils), Meng Xiangliang, Zhao Yonghua (human traffickers), Mugino Niki (Japanese woman on train), Yazaki Hayato (Japanese passenger on train), Zhang Qiao (Japanese soldier), Gao Li (Gao Wuyin’s mother), Sun Genxi (village husband), Zhao Yating (village wife).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (View China), 19 Jun 2010.
Release: China, 7 Aug 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 20 Nov 2010.)