The hardships of growing up poor in rural China provide the dramatic core of “Going to School With Dad on My Back,” an involving, handsomely crafted account of one boy’s determination to endure. Helmer Zhou Youchao served as an assistant on Zhang Yimou’s groundbreaking “Red Sorghum” and “Ju Dou,” and while his pic doesn’t have those films’ undercurrent of acerbic social comment, it does boast stylistic assurance and a Zhang-like appreciation of the rugged textures of peasant life. Those virtues and pic’s accessibility should win it plenty of admirers at Sino-attuned fests.
For viewers aware of the ideological strictures faced by Chinese filmmakers recently, there’s significance but little surprise in the fact that the temporal setting here is left so vague: The time is presumably the present or very recent past, yet we never hear any news of the larger world beyond, controversial or otherwise.
Instead, Zhou evokes the timelessness of rural life and the arbitrariness of fate. Protag Shiwa is a boy when his dad, an unlettered, widowed farmer, spins a copper spoon and lets its fall determine which of his two kids will attend school. Shiwa’s older sister loses out, but becomes her brother’s staunchest ally.
Rather than chronicling Shiwa’s schooling, tale concentrates on his difficulty in gaining it and its impact on his life at home. At first, he’s afraid to cross the river that separates his farm from the school, and events support that fear: A female schoolmate dies in the torrent, and the school is momentarily hushed by mourning.
But Shiwa, threatened with beatings by his father, perseveres and gradually grows in courage, confidence and stature. Back on the farm, those who work the land show little interest in or understanding of the knowledge he’s acquiring, and he gradually becomes something of a stranger in their midst. His biggest jolt comes one day when he returns home and finds that his father has married off his beloved sister without telling him.
When he’s an adolescent, a school contest arrives that proves as much a crucial divide in Shiwa’s life as that rushing river once seemed. He aces the chemistry competition, and then must decide whether to remain on the farm or go to the city to continue his education. In a way, though, his rendezvous with modern life, like that of China itself, has already been decided.
Given its lack of an overtly critical stance, pic’s viewpoint could easily have become sentimental or didactic. Zhou and scripter Wang Zhebin manage to steer clear of various pitfalls, however, by giving the story an understated social resonance while concentrating on the textures of family life and the ebb and flow of individual experience. The story overall has the air of a middle-aged survivor’s careful, reflective reminiscence: It’s too personal to come across as rhetorical or artificially dramatic, yet its quiet passion for the lives it renders gives it an edge of authenticity and commitment.
This makes for a pleasing narrative package, which Zhou abets with a sure-handed, unshowy visual approach that gives careful attention to landscapes as well as characters. Perfs, including those of kid actors, are solid throughout, as are tech contributions.