The mundanity of it all
In Oliver Glodsmith’s 1760-61 pseudo-Chinese letters called The Citizen of the World, there’s a moment when an Englishman expresses disappointment at the Asian visitor’s talk. He’d been expecting exoticism and arcane wisdom, and all he is hearing, he says, is “mere chit-chat and common sense.” That is the shortcoming of this new prizewinning feature from Song Fang. It is a cozy in-family celebration of Chinese matter-of-fact-ness so unwavering as to be numbing. There are fundamental truths about life here, but they are buried in the non-drama. As a Hollywood Reporter comment put it, only the “most serious art-house cinema” audience will warm to Song’s “narrow focus and chilly film-school minimalism.”
The young female director had full cooperation from her mother and father and other family members in shooting this docu-drama in which she comes for a visit and talks at length with her parents and particularly her mother about aging, her grandmother’s death, and other day-to-day issues. The focus is on aging and on how memories link family members. There are links with the documentary fiction of the film’s producer Jia Zhangke and also of the low keyed focus of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Song starred in Hou’s Parisian-set Flight of the Red Balloon (NYFF 2007). Song’s delicacy and the clean lines of her editing and cinematography (rudimentary equipment doesn’t keep there from being some beautiful, simple images), plus the focus on humanistic concerns that are universal, won her the Best First Feature prize at Locarno.
However, a scene in which Song’s mom takes her dad’s blood pressure and finds it at an all-time low provides a metaphor for the whole film: the claustrophobic indoor “action,” which consists of sitting around and talking, is so delicate and matter-of fact that it will lower your blood pressure, and maybe even put you to sleep. How much do you really care when Song first went to middle school, or why she thought her mom looked older than other moms then? As the chit-chat and common sense spill calmly out of mouths, the humanism becomes hard to discern from the mundane detail, and Song’s film does not sing. However, the film has a simplicity, purity, and natural flow that make one understand the Locarno jury’s admiration. But then I think of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and this dwindles to a tiny scribble. Rigorous this may be, and economical it certainly is, but it also seems lazy, hugely unadventurous, and numbingly lacking in cinematic verve.
The transliterated Chinese title of Memories Look at Me is Ji Yi Wang Zhe Wo.
Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
Director: Fang Song
Stars: Fang Song
Runtime: 87 min