A father’s absence can be painful, but his return can be as well.
Available…erm…online…but you may need to find subtitles separately. Approximately 133 minutes.
In 1967, Gengnian and Xiuqing had a baby boy, whom they named, Xiangyang. Early on, they displayed a bunch of items in front of him in order to determine his occupational destiny; it was determined that he would become an artist like his father.
Things seemed to be going fine for a couple of years, but then the authorities took Gengnian away without giving warning or reason. He was imprisoned and abused for six years, then released about as suddenly as he was taken.
Xiangyang is now eight years old, running around with a group of other boys and slinging pebbles at anyone they feel like. When one of the neighborhood girls tells on him, Xiuqing chases her son around with the intent of beating him.
This is what greets Gengnian when he returns home. Xiuqing is delighted to see him. Xiangyang, of course, does not recognize him. He has trouble referring to Gengnian as his father, either because he is simply not used to it or because he resents what he sees as an interloper. He does not understand why his father had disappeared for six years or why he returned; additionally, he does not really care about the answer to either question.
The abuse the Gengnian had suffered over the years included the breaking of his hand, which has rendered him unable to draw or paint as he used to. He, thus, devotes his efforts to teaching Xiangyang to draw and paint. Xiangyang puts up with this for a while, but quickly grows impatient and restless. He often puts in minimal effort to draw a picture so that he can run off to play with his friends. Gengnian responds with anger, sometimes forceful anger. There are points where it seems as if the two could start bonding as father and son, but the moments eventually pass and they are back to squabbling. At one point, it takes an earthquake that threatens to destroy their house to bring them back together, and even that does not last very long. It gets to the point where Xiangyang tries to mangle his own hand in order to get out of having to take drawing lessons.
The movie then skips ahead to 1987, showing a 19-year-old Xiangyang still drawing, but antagonizing his parents by skipping art classes to hang out with his buddy and new girlfriend.
Then it skips ahead again to 1999, where a 32-year-old Xiangyang is putting on an art exhibit and struggling to figure out how to deal with his family, especially since they look like people in their mid-forties with fake gray hair.
The movie is a little coy in explicitly referencing the Cultural Revolution and the role that Chairman Mao Zedong played in it, but it is quite obvious that Gengnian was a victim of that. During the Cultural Revolution, it was possible for children to turn in their parents for anti-Revolutionary activities; in a sense, Gengnian was lucky to be released around the time that the Cultural Revolution ended (and Mao died) and not earlier, since Xiangyang could have gotten him arrested again otherwise. The government is pretty much out of sight for the most part, but it casts a long shadow over the family and the community to which the family belongs.
This is a movie about family and family responsibilities. Gengnian had a responsibility to raise Xiangyang, but the opportunity was taken from him. With those important six years gone, Gengnian has trouble relating to his son and asserting his authority outside of giving orders and the occasional beatings. Xiangyang has lived most of his life during the Cultural Revolution and without a father and, thus, feels little reason for following this stranger who had gotten himself arrested, yet gives angry lectures about staying out of trouble. It is a power struggle, with Gengian trying to get back the dignity and standing that was taken from him while Xiangyang trying to prevent his freedoms from slipping away. Xiuqing struggles to keep the peace between the two. This often results in her taking Xiangyang’s side until he inevitably crosses a line.
Asian families are not generally known for being particularly warm, at least outwardly. So, even without the context of the Cultural Revolution or the unjust imprisonment, Gengian may have still acted the way that he did. The movie, however, presents this cold style of parenting as bad. There are a few moments when Gengian does look upon Xiangyang with warmth, but they are rarely when Xiangyang can see him. Even though Xiangyang had a tendency to get into trouble before Gengian returned, one could argue that his behavior worsened as a result of Gengian’s heavy-handed tactics. Even when Xiuqing turns against her son after he does something particularly bad, she still seems to wordlessly acknowledge that her husband had pushed him to this. To an extent, even Gengian realizes this, but either cannot help himself or does not know any other way of doing things. After all, the movie suggests that he is neither the only one who parents this way nor the only one with a delinquent child.
Obedience to one’s parents is paramount in Asian societies, particularly those with Confucian roots. That said, a social superior in Confucian society must not rest simply on circumstances to maintain his authority; he must show himself to be worthy of obedience. Through no real fault of his own, Gengian was robbed of this automatic assumption of authority. Simply being a victim does not, however, give him the right to be expect automatic obedience from his son. By all accounts, Xiangyang was a bad kid who needed discipline. Yet, Gengian demanded respect that he did not prove he deserved. And, given the attempts by the Communist government to present an alternative to the traditions of the past, Gengian proving himself through Confucian principles may be pointless.
Xiangyang, at least once he hits his thirties, would probably be the first to admit that he is more like his father than he would like to be. They are both rebels of sorts. Gengian pushes back quietly against the Communist Party; not in ways that would get him arrested again, but in ways that prevent him from being beholden towards them. This stands in contrast to Xiuqing, who tries to navigate through some of the more ridiculous government rules in order to have more secure housing arrangements. Xiangyang, of course, rebels against his father. He sees Gengian’s forcing his own thwarted dreams upon him to be as nonsensical as the government’s actions that resulted in the thwarting of those dreams in the first place. Even when Xiangyang does become a professional artist, his continued rebellion against his father (and his mother to a lesser extent) is the direct result of his experiences of struggling under Gengian’s reign. Still, it is notable that Xiangyang does stick with art through adulthood. Perhaps because he knows no alternative except for delinquency. Or maybe it is an unstated acknowledgement of his father’s legacy. In a sense, this thread is someone autobiographical on the part of the director, whose father was also a movie director.
Despite all of the yelling, this is a rather quiet family drama. If you manage to find a way of getting a hold of it, I highly recommend that you do.
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