Deliberate, engrossing docu “Daughter From Yan’an” examines, in personal detail, the toll the massive Chinese human rights violations of the 1970s have taken on the children of that Cultural Revolution. As dignity in the face of almost unimaginable grief speaks a universal language, look for momentum from the film’s docu competish win at Karlovy Vary to carry translate into prestige fest dates, selected arthouse runs and steady ancillary on the tube and disc.
“I wonder if they think of me,” ponders 28-year-old He Haixia, who lives and works the fields in Yan’an, a remote, impoverished village in the northern inland Chinese province of Shaanxi. “They” are her Beijing-born birth parents, two of some 16 million Red Guard youth encouraged by Chairman Mao to revolt against the bourgeoisie, then subsequently “sent down” to rural villages over the next decade and forbidden such “capitalist” displays as romance — and childbirth.
Adopted by a childless farming couple who isolated her emotionally in favor of their own offspring, He is now married with a young son, and wants to meet her parents “because I want someone who cares about me.” She finds help from former “sent-down youth” Huang Yuling, whose still grieves over the fetus his girlfriend was forced to abort during this period, and retains the scars of the subsequent five years of hard labor he was forced to endure as a “counter-revolutionary.”
Action opens as Huang has located He’s birth father, Wang Luchang, who at first wants nothing to do with her, but finally meets her face-to-face in the narrow Beijing flat he shares. Pic chronicle’s the repercussions on He’s life and family as the connection sends shockwaves through families and friends in both towns.
Pic reps true-life telling of certain themes dramatized in actress-turned-director Joan Chen’s 1998 drama “Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl,” as well as other high-profile Chinese pics “Farewell My Concubine” and “To Live.” Director Ikeya Kaoru wisely lets the stories play themselves out in unrushed detail, and the deliberate approach bears dramatic fruit as He’s family agonizes over its options — and particularly when Huang Yuling finally breaks down from the emotional burden of the search.
Tech credits are workmanlike, if somewhat visually dark during certain key dramatic moments. Generous helping of period newsreel footage helps to place the fearful mass uprising of the revolution itself in vivid historical perspective. Spoken in both Mandarin (the Beijing sequences) and the Shaanxi dialect, pic was three years in the making, including two years spent by helmer with subjects.