"Taking Father Home": An Indie Chinese Film, Subversive and Heartbreaking By Lim Fong Wei

in 9th Singapore International Film Festival

by Lim Fong Wei

To some audience at this year festival, Taking Father Home (Bei Zhe Ya Zi de Nan Hai), has much to offend. A few cinephiles told me after the screening that they were put off by its rough and amateurish look. But what disturbed them most was the shocking patricide. They had not expected a boy who set out to find and bring his father back to the village would end up killing him. The outrage of the ultimate taboo fly in the face of the deep rooted filial piety honoured in Chinese society. However, there are also many merits that make this Indie Chinese film such a subversive and ultimately heartbreaking film earning the FIPRESCI prize.

Shot entirely in DV with a cast of villagers, Ying Liang’s film follows a headstrong village boy who runs off to the city to search for his long estranged father who has abandoned his family to form another family in the city. With little money, an outdated address, and two ducks which he carries on a rattan basket. Bei Zhe Ya Zi de Nan Hai (The Boy Who Carries the Ducks), its Chinese title, doesn’t give away the intention of his quest so readily. Hhe ran into a thug and a sympathetic policeman who become his surrogate father figures in the film.

The film is about the quest of the father figure in the increasingly modernized and urbanized Chinese society. However, the father figures as the boy will come (and hope) to discover is not one that nurtures, protects and educate, they eventually betrays and disappoint. On the first day he arrives in the city, he is beguiled and cheated of his money by the thug. Except for the caring cop, he is almost always turned away, thrown out and taunted in the city. The people he encountered are almost entirely callous, violent, exploitative and downright cruel. When he eventually finds his father, the latter is not only happy with another family, and had completely forgotten he has existed in the first place. The new economy in China has made his father equally exploitative and opportunistic as the thug. Taking Father Home is a anti-road movie where the usual redemption and self-empowerment does not come at the end of the road. Instead the boy learns to internalize and embody the dysfunctions he picked up along the way as how grown up life should be. Many in the audience were shocked by the slaying of the estranged father, committed in moment of crazed rage, betrayal and deep disappointment. But what is most heartbreaking is that he is not only slaying his father but also severing his only umbilical chord to his innocent hope.

The DV gave the film a impoverished visual, some thinks it compromises a potentially great film, but I think the medium works really well for the film, reflecting the poverty and interior lives of the subject. The washed out visual of the DV film enhances the grittiness of the muddied thatched huts in the villages, the run down government houses in the city and the rained down and abandoned condo construction sites. Despite the garage equipment, Ying Liang’s style is far from being shabby. His masterful use of unedited long takes and actions taking place off-screen reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien and Theo Angelopoulos, with some wonderful aerial shots put the audience in the head and the social setting of the dead pan village boy. It is also noteworthy that with a basic DV and clever directing, Ying Liang has created an impending sense of danger prior to a flood scene that threatened to destroy the city. The catastrophic mood he achieved is far superior to the slick CGI rendered Hollywood disaster films.

Taking Father Home starts with a bus scene, and end with a similar bus scene. In the end the village boy seems to have grown up overnight and takes control too, showing what he has observed and learned well from his dysfunctional father figures, that one has to exploit and bully to survive. In the same way as the thug he has witnessed in the first bus scene when the boy caught the pickpocket and brought the wallet back to the owner, he repeated the exact lines the thug has said: “You got your wallet back, but you must know I did not do it for free.” And in the same thuggish swagger he took the money and walked back to his seat. That is the bleakest moment in the film, darker than the slaying of his father. Ying Liang seems to suggest that the superficial and rapid modernization is rotting the humanity from within, and the lack of positive father figures only perpetrates the social problems and dysfunction that China faces.