"Taking Father Home" Farewell, my little village By Alberto Ramos

in 20th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Alberto Ramos Ruiz

Momentum gained by China’s reformist policies set up a decade after communist ruler Mao Zedong’s death by the mid seventies, coined as the “four modernisation way”, has led to the Asian giant becoming a leading force in the global economy. However, less has been said about the dramatic cost paid by a largely rural Chinese society committed to traditional values to the “market socialism” successful formula. The issue is addressed through allegory in the debut feature of independent Chinese director Ying Liang Taking Father Home (Bei Ya Zi De Nan Hai), a coming-of-age tale with a pessimist, resigned bent and a funny, affectionate look at its characters.

Six years after his father departure, 17 year-old villager Xu Yun leaves hometown and heads for the big city in search of the man. What he knows on his whereabouts is barely an inspiring street name: Happiness. But that seems enough for Xu, so he takes a basket with a pair of geese, the perfect alter ego of his peasant vulnerability under the incongruous cityscape (and besides, a steadfast cinematic prop that becomes somehow reminiscent of certain compositional strategies by Ozu), and starts looking for his missing Dad. Soon he meets two weird companions: the boastful, loquacious petty criminal “Scar” and a cop that turns out to be a lonely soul alienated from his rather dysfunctional family. Both men care about him, performing as substitute fathers along the young man’s quest. The offbeat duet of a policeman and a delinquent, one of the polar emblems of urban life, not only offers to Xu Yun a curious, sometimes antithetical paradigm of adulthood but also hints at the pervasive violence that runs across the film.

The idea of a rural China in transition, and the negative outcome of the exodus triggered by the cities’ vigorous expansion in terms of familiar fracture, marginality, emotional instability and generational detachment, is central Taking Father Home. Xu Yun ‘s resolution goes back to an old issue in cinema: the corrupting influence of the city as opposed to the sublime model of nobility and virtue represented by the country. But his enterprise, whose relevance is questioned by everyone he meets, proves anything but heroic. Rather, it conveys an attempt to preserve a traditional order that relies on adhesion to a male authority providing with identity and material support (women being passively self-effacing, as hinted by mother and sister’s presence reduced to voiceover).

On the other hand, a vivid (and at times amusing) contrast is established among naïve, stubborn Xu Yun and his hardened benefactors, not to mention a father victimized by his failed prospects of wealth. Ultimately, these pathetic figures convey an inability to embrace the alienating and dehumanized urban life, with its moral built upon deceit, coercion and scepticism.

The plot is set upon the scenery of an upcoming inundation threatening the city, as rains will cause a nearby river to burst its banks, and the impending conversion of Xu Yun’s village into an Industrial Rice Zone. While flooding obviously conveys a bitter metaphor of an overpowering dynamic of social change, the impersonal, almost Orwellian radio broadcasts and loudspeaker warnings get interspersed with the young man’s journey, setting an ironic counterpoint between the fragile humanity of Xu Yun and his companions, and the cold, almighty and optimist rhetoric that comes out from the megaphones.

So, the sense of defeat stressed by a circular narrative is overlapped to the relentless progression of the disaster as expression of an inescapable fate, until a colour-to-black and white transition masterly seals their convergence in the ending shots. These include, together with the symbolic burial of the father and the desolate documentary images of inundation supplied with a neutral voice-of-God comment, a sequence in the bus back home where Xu Yun re-enacts the same pickpocket trick that his mentor “Scar” did in the beginning and so becomes an occasional hero. The scene, which points to his definitive embracing the values of a new world, supposes a sardonic look to a picaresque that survives at the expense of citizen’s good faith.

Stylistically, Liang’s approach is rigorous and detached. As a norm, the unobtrusive realism of long, static shots is preferred so the characters can evolve freely in frame. Besides, there is a remarkable penchant for offscreen sound and action, as well as subjective POV that reinforce the sense of personal experience of the story (the director’s father was far from home during three years, and Liang’s himself has stated: “The POV of this film belongs to the son, also belongs to me.”). Last, the film’s sizeable gallery of minor characters includes a variegated fauna of amiable cops, spoiled teens, street musicians, small-time bullies, lonely elders and submissive wives that offers a wealthy, vibrant perspective of the life in those borderline territories where the silent (to the foreigner) mutations of China’s rural landscape take place, regardless of the gleaming figures handed by macroeconomics. As silent as the impressive head of the Buda lying abandoned in a river, which Xu Yun holds on in one of the film’s most eloquent passages on disaffection, oblivion and hopelessness.