Dinner for Six
China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 97 mins.
Director: Li Yuan 李远.
Lightly nostalgic drama centred on two families in the early 1990s is smartly played, written and directed.
A town in Yunnan province, southern China, 1992. Senior high-school student Lin Xiaolan (Zhang Junning) lives at home with her younger brother Lin Xiaobai (Cui Wenlu), who’s bullied at school because of his weight, and their widowed mother Su Qin (Wu Junmei). The local Red Star Steel Factory dominates the town’s economy but, in an era when many state enterprises are being closed down, workers are being offered voluntary redundancy. Su Qin, who works as an accountant there, is having a not-so-secret relationship with a fitter at the factory, widower Ding Bogang (Wu Gang). He drinks too much and has a brawler of a teenage son, Ding Chenggong (Dou Xiao), and a younger daughter who skips school and plays around, Ding Zhenzhen (Yin Xinzi). One day Lin Xiaolan almost gets caught up in a fight between two gangs, one of which is led by Ding Chenggong. Going back later to find a valued necklace she lost, she bumps into Ding Chenggong who returns it and jokingly teases her. At a pre-arranged dinner at the Ding home for each of the lovers to meet the other’s children, Lin Xiaolan discovers who Ding Chenggong actually is. He is at a work polytechnic and wants to be a glass-blower but his father, who doesn’t approve, asks Su Qin to use her factory connections to help his son get a proper job. Lin Xiaolan and Deng Chenggong start to connect when he helps her retrieve her necklace from a thug who stole it. She later goes on to pass her university entrance exam but becomes afraid she’ll never see Ding Chenggong again if she moves away. Her mother urges her not to waste the opportunity to better her life, and confides that she intends to break up with Ding Bogang. At the two families’ next weekly dinner together, she announces it’ll be the last time all six of them are together. Ding Chenggong keeps up with Lin Xiaolan by visiting her at university; in the meantime, her younger brother fails his exams and goes south, Ding Bogang is laid off and retires, and Ding Zhenzhen plans to marry her chancer boyfriend Hei Pi (Zhao Lixin). When Lin Xiaolan is offered a job as a teacher in another province, she asks Ding Chenggong to leave the factory town and start a new life with her. But he hesitates to leave the only life he knows.
A lightly nostalgic drama about two widowed families in a southern town, Dinner for Six 六人晚餐 follows the changes in various relationships as China itself changes across 14 years (1992-2006) from a command to market economy. Strongly cast at both ends of the age scale, and equally strongly scripted, its characters and situations have a familiar ring but are skilfully shuffled into a fresh-feeling mix by director Li Yuan 李远, 39, here finally finding his feet after making an iffy debut with a caper comedy (Coming Back 回马枪, 2011), co-directing a good kid’s film (On My Way 跑出一片天, 2012) and not so good horror (The House 楼, 2013), plus a glossy TV drama series (City Lover 城市恋人, 2016).
Judging by his past films, Li’s strengths seem to lie more in directing than in writing, which is maybe why Dinner is more successful: not only is it based on a published novel (2012, by Jiangsu-born writer Lu Min 鲁敏, 44) but also the close adaptation is by the experienced Mei Feng 梅峰, a longtime writer for director Lou Ye 娄烨 (Purple Butterfly 紫蝴蝶, 2003; Mystery 浮城谜事, 2012) who recently made a strong directing debut of his own with the sardonic period drama Mr. No Problem 不成问题的问题 (2016). Throughout, Li’s direction is spot on, giving the actors space in important scenes (such as the weekly dinners together, where tensions are worked out) and elsewhere pointing up nuances in the script. Along with an expressive but harmonically unconventional score by Zhou Jiaojiao 周佼佼 (People Mountain People Sea 人山人海, 2011) and Lin Yihang 林逸航, an unshowy period look by art director Zhao Xiaolong 赵小龙 and stylist Liu Jun 刘军, mobile editing by Qiao Aiyu 乔爱宇 (The Old Cinderella 脱轨时代, 2014; Tiny Times 4 小时代 灵魂尽头, 2015) and clean widescreen photography by Liu Yonghong 刘勇宏 (Blind Shaft 盲井, 2003; Luxury Car 江城夏日, 2006), the overall effect is to make basically familiar material seem fresh.
Contrasting the twilight of China’s command economy in the late 1900s with the New China of the 21st century – with some nostalgia for past, simpler times thrown in – is a familiar recipe in Mainland novels and films: here the setting is an unnamed town in the southern province of Yunnan (though it might just as well be anywhere, as there’s no specific local colour) and the working community centred on the steel factory. It’s a similar background to that of Young Love Lost 少年巴比伦 (2015) but Dinner takes a different course from just being a youth romance in a crumbling, heavy-industrial setting. The twist here is that the story centres on two families, each missing a parent: a mother and her daughter and son, and a father and his son and daughter.
The adults are engaged in a not-so-secret relationship which involves her visiting him at night and, after the two families get to know each other through weekly dinners à six (hence the title), the elder daughter and elder son also become lovers. He’s a braggy brawler who’s at odds with his father, she’s studious and determined and gives her mother a hard time. The characters are standard archetypes but made flesh and blood by veteran actors Wu Junmei 邬君梅 [Vivian Wu], 51, utterly believable as a provincial factory accountant without a trace of make-up, and character actor Wu Gang 吴刚, 58, often in sinister supporting roles but here in a rare lead as an embittered, alcoholic father. Both elders only want the best for their children (and themselves) but are unable to express their love in any meaningful way.
Actual lead billing goes to Mainland-born, Canadian-raised Dou Xiao 窦骁 [Shawn Dou], 28, who’s pretty good here as the brawler son who just wants to be a glass-blower and refuses to play by the usual rules, and to German-born, Taiwan-educated Zhang Junning 张钧甯, who’s not only very convincing as a Mainlander but also, despite being in her early 30s, actually has more personality as the teenage student than as the grown woman of the later scenes. Chemistry between the two is OK but not special, and the rapid resolution of their relationship at the end is borderline ludicrous, with even the actors themselves looking like they don’t believe it. It’s a rare misstep by the film, which generally avoids the obvious even when dealing with stereotypes. The film’s most moving sequence is not between Dou and Zhang, or even between the two Wus, but the return in the second half of the daughter’s younger brother, last seen as a bullied, almost semi-retarded fattie. It’s emotional effect stems partly from its well-scripted restraint.
The film was shot in spring 2015 around Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, as well as in other locations in the country. The English title literally translates the Chinese. On posters, but not the film itself, the English title is the meaningless Youth Dinner.
Presented by Shanghai Laifu Film & TV Production (CN), Beijing Shenghua Zhidian International Cultural Media (CN), Beijing Hongyue Jinxiao Film & TV Media (CN), Dongyang Hongyue Jinxiao Film & TV Cultural Media (CN), Dongyang Tianyi Qisheng Cultural Media (CN), iQiyi Pictures (Beijing) (CN). Produced by Shanghai Laifu Film & TV Production (CN).
Script: Mei Feng, Zhang Yiyang. Novel: Lu Min. Photography: Liu Yonghong. Editing: Qiao Aiyu. Music: Zhou Jiaojiao, Lin Yihang. Music direction: Dong Wei. Art direction: Zhao Xiaolong. Styling: Liu Jun. Sound: Liu Yinghao. Visual effects: Chi Xun, Liu Lei. Executive direction: Hao Xuankai.
Cast: Dou Xiao [Shawn Dou] (Ding Chenggong), Zhang Junning (Lin Xiaolan), Wu Junmei [Vivian Wu] (Su Qin), Wu Gang (Ding Bogang), Zhao Lixin (Hei Pi/Black Skin, Ding Zhenzhen’s boyfriend), Yu Haoming (elder Lin Xiaobai), Yin Xinzi (Ding Zhenzhen), Cui Wenlu (younger Lin Xiaobai), Jiang Chen (Gu Li, Lin Xiaolan’s best friend), Chen Huan (Huang Xin, Lin Xiaolan’s husband), Hu Qingyun (Auntie Dong, downstairs neighbour), Chen Weixu (Biaozi), Hao Xuankai (Luo Bian), Li Yunuo (Cha Hong), Jiang Wei (Gezi), Chen Kehan (Yingzi), Fu Lijia (Zhang Hongren), Fan Wei (billiard-hall manager), Yang Zuojiu (Hei Pi’s father), Yao Wenrui, Zhao Lin (ruffians).
Premiere: Festival de Cinéma Chinois de Paris, 13 Nov 2016.
Release: China, 16 Jun 2017.