China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 91 mins.
Director: Pan Shi 磐石.
Modest but affecting rural drama that conceals much beneath its placid surface.
Shuanggang township, Poyang county, Shangrao, Jiangxi province, China, the present day. Xu Chunxiu (Xu Huijin), 13, lives with her widowed father (Wu Shuimei), almost 50, a collective farm worker. Xu Chunxiu’s mother died some seven years ago and her grandmother is crippled and does not have long to live. Xu Chunxiu’s teacher tells her father that Chunxiu has the potential to be a good student but always seems distracted during class. Her father is also behind on paying her school fees. Xu Chunxiu urges her father to get re-married, and matchmaker Liu (Cao Ping’ai) recommends a 36-year-old widow, Guilan (Sun Huaping), who has a daughter, Li Qiaozhen (Fang Yuan), who is Xu Chunxiu’s age. The two girls get along, and Xu Chunxiu’s father marries Guilan, who is a devoted wife and works alongside him in the fields. But both Xu Chunxiu’s father and Guilan are hiding terrible secrets.
Based on a novel by Jiangxi writer Cheng Hui 程晖, Promise 背影 is a rural family drama whose placid surfaces and lack of much action conceal considerable dark undercurrents. Mainland cinema – especially the kind that makes it to western festivals – is not short of slow-moving dramas stressing the tedium and conservatism of countryside life, but this first feature by writer-director Pan Shi 磐石, who previously worked in advertising and publishing, manages to be moderately paced and formally shot, with a minimum of dialogue, without becoming boring or needlessly arty.
The film initially seems to be through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Xu Chunxiu, introduced in a long-held shot of her staring through the window of her classroom instead of listening to the teacher. Xu Chunxiu is a bright student but a dreamer, who seems to be preoccupied by family matters: her mother died seven or so years ago and she yearns for her father, a struggling collective farmer, to remarry so she can have a mother. The film avoids the usual cliches of family abuse: her father, though poor, is a kind man, and he finally agrees to marry a widow who has a daughter the same age as Xu Chunxiu. Xu Chunxiu and the daughter bond, and the new wife, Guilan, proves to be a hard-working woman.
The twists to this simple, unremarkable story start coming at the midway point, and are almost glancingly introduced. Although by then the movie’s focus has drifted away from Xu Chunxiu to the two adults (and their own secrets), it returns to the children in the film’s most emotionally powerful scene, when the father has to take a tough decision between the two. A postscript, set eight years later, ends the story on an optimistic, life-goes-on note. Overall, the movie is a modest but quietly impressive debut.
Pan draws a range of performances from his non-professional cast – topped by Xu Huijun 徐惠君 as Chunxiu, Wu Shuimei 吴水美 as the taciturn father and Sun Huaping 孙华萍 as Guilan – that seem absolutely authentic while still having a cinematic feel. Largely using a fixed viewpoint, the well-composed widescreen photography by Liu Yonghong 刘勇宏 captures the region (about 500 kilometres southwest of Shanghai) without any over-prettification. Dialogue is largely in the local Poyang 鄱阳 dialect. The Chinese title literally means “Rear View” [or “Silhouette”].
Presented by Beijing Feast Film & TV Culture Communication (CN), Jiangxi Qiu Shui Chang Tian Culture Media (CN). Produced by Poyang County CPC (CN), Poyang County People’s Government (CN), Beijing Feast Film & TV Culture Communication (CN), Jiangxi Qiu Shui Chang Tian Culture Media (CN).
Script: Pan Shi, Cheng Hui. Novel: Cheng Hui. Photography: Liu Yonghong. Editing: Liu Zhiyong. Music: Tang Yi. Art direction: Yu Dapeng. Sound: Zhang Jingwei, Cao Meng. Executive direction: Bai Ma.
Cast: Wu Shuimei (Xu), Xu Huijin (Xu Chunxiu, his daughter), Sun Huaping (Guilan), Fang Yuan (Li Qiaozhen, Guilan’s daughter), Cheng Lei (adult Xu Chunxiu), Zhou Xiaoyan (adult Li Qiaozhen), Cao Ping’ai (Liu, matchmaker), Shi Yixian (Guilan’s elder brother), Sun Guo’ai (Tiechengtuo), Wang Jun (teacher), Cao Lingling (female boss), Wang Yueshan (doctor).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (New Chinese Films), 17 Jun 2012.
Release: China, tba.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 24 Jun 2012.)