EXPECTATIONS: A drama with great potential drowning in China film censorship.
REVIEW: Before I start reviewing the film, I like to make a few things clear about the context of the story of the film. Over in China, the government had passed a law called the One-Child Policy, which basically means: one family, one child. Since the law was passed, the term “lost family” was coined after families were stuck into tragedy after losing their one and only child and according to statistics, the figure for such a happening has risen up to 76,000. How do I know this? It’s stated in the film. And while it helps to know this context, Back to the North is a drama revolving around the bonds of family and what binds them together throughout the many obstacles and problems of life, set within the Chinese political backdrop which references the One Child Policy. But does it compel as a film as well as political commentary?
Nan Sheng stars as Xiao Ai, a young textile worker who hides a secret of having a terminal disease from her parents, whilst going through a phase of her life which can finally make her independent and dwell into the outside world. Conversely, her parents, consisting of her loving mother Liu Qing (Su Yijuan) and her hard-working, yet absent father Ai Liang (Ran Weiqun), are also keeping a secret from Ai, which is that their relationship is suffering. Having to put on a façade for their daughter every time the two meet, it becomes more apparent to Ai. Not worrying about her deteriorating health, Ai worries more about her parents’ fate. Having thoughts about passing away before they do, she brings up the idea to her parents of having another child. But are her parents willing to put aside their differences and prepare to go to great lengths for the sake of their dying daughter?
What is first apparent from the very first shot of the film is how influenced Liu Hao is of other filmmakers. The narration of the first scene is similar to the work of Wong Kar-wai, which can be more jarring to the films’ already understated tone. Even the low-frame rate look that Wong uses is noticeable in some shots. The musical score (credited to Wan Yenmeng) is not your typical Chinese score, but is surprisingly reminiscent of French music, which can seem a bit mismatched at times. Speaking of French, the beautiful black and white cinematography is also reminiscent of the French Film Wave. The scenery of China is reminiscent of Jia Zhangke, which conveys a complimentary contrast between the industrial setting and the country setting. But despite all of the references to other filmmakers, director Liu adepts an assured touch to this film that makes it distinctively his. It really helps that the story (that he also wrote) and the context explores themes that is rarely looked upon, especially for family dramas and for films in China.
The actors certainly add a lot of credibility to the film with their understated performances. Nan Sheng portrays the perfect balance of childlike naivety and world-weariness of Xiao Ai, as she goes through her tumultuous journey while Su Yijuan is convincing as mother Liu Qing, especially during dinner scenes alongside Nan. Ran Weiqun is good as father Ai Liang, but he does not stand out when compared to the women. The cast benefit from director Liu Hao’s subtle approach, as they are able to bring life to their characters with very little dialogue and a lot of focus on physical acting. The dinner scenes involving the three leads are compelling to watch, as it is very immersive to witness what these characters are going through, with very little exposition.
As much as I liked the film, there are some caveats that keep the film from greatness. First of all is the pacing. Although it was necessary in the film, there are some scenes where there is very little happening on-screen that just unnecessarily pads the running time i.e. a scene in the country where a vehicle moves slowly towards its destination. I am also conflicted towards the ending. While the story does reach a touching conclusion, the postscript bothered me. For Western viewers, it does provide some needed context, but in the long run, the film already does convey what it needed to convey, in terms of its themes, so the extra moment at the end just dulls the power of the story a little bit. It could have been more beneficial to the film if it cut the postscript out just to not seem like the film has a political agenda. It just comes off as conflicting and can leave the mainstream viewer befuddled.
But Back to the North is a worthwhile film that has great performances, striking cinematography and shows many signs that director Liu Hao will become a great filmmaker over time.
Note – The song “Forgotten Time” by Tsai Ching, which is featured in the film is well known as the song that is prominently featured in the Infernal Affairs films.
The cast give fantastic performances
Director Liu Hao’s film influences make a great imprint in his work, whilst providing his own directorial touch
Refreshing themes in the familial drama genre are explored very well
The pacing can be very slow at times
The postscript hinders the power of the ending quite a bit
Cast: Luo Xiaoyi, Nan Sheng, Su Yujian
Director: Liu Hao
Screenwriter: Liu Hao