Mainland Chinese actress Xu Jinglei makes a confident helming debut with “My Father and I,” an episodic but affecting portrait of a daughter and her wastrel dad adjusting to life with each other after her mother’s death. Too character-driven and a tad soft-centered for Western markets’ taste in Chinese fare, it’s still an involving light drama, well played by Xu herself and Ye Daying, that will be of interest to Asiaphiles and Asia-friendly fests. Specialist tube sales also look warm.
In the space of a few years, and away from the international spotlight, Xu, 29, has carved out a rep as one of China’s most interesting and iconic young actresses. After starting in TV, she has starred in a series of films that have positioned her between the mainstream and the underground vid scene — “Dazzling,” “Spring Subway,” “Far From Home” and, in her best perf prior to “Father,” Zhang Yuan’s “I Love You,” as a psychotic wife.
Built as a series of memories, in three half-hour sections, “Father” starts with a voiceover by Yu Jing (Xu), recalling how, as a child, she would often glimpse her estranged dad, Yu Da (Ye), in the street but he never acknowledged her. First time they meet properly is when he collects her from school after her mom dies in an accident.
Shaven-headed and podgy, Yu Da looks more like a gangster, and in fact runs a somewhat shady bar with a friend (Zhang, cameoing).
Early on, the basic dynamics of the film are set up, with Yu Jing a quietly determined young woman who knows her own mind and Yu Da a hopeless but genuinely devoted father who keeps trying to reform himself. The two quickly establish a relationship of equals, with scenes that are frank, warm and funny. But when Yu Da is sent to prison for three years for pimping, Yu Jing is left alone again, and later goes to university, where she falls for a fellow student.
Three years later, when Yu Da gets out of stir and bumps into her on the street, the pair pick up where they left off. Yu Jing is now a teacher, and still with her live-in b.f., who’s dismissive of her father. In a beautifully written core scene, during a dinner to which dad brings a forthright girlfriend (Qiu Qiu), Yu Jing announces she’s getting married to Guo and moving to Shanghai. Shocked, and only thinking of her best, Yu Da tries to talk her out of it, to poignant effect.
Two years later, Yu Jing returns — alone and pregnant — and father and daughter try again to bond, as Yu Da takes care of her child. But then tragedy intervenes.
Structured like a three-act play, pic is basically a series of variations on a single theme, with little major drama apart from the final reels, which are actually the weakest and least convincing. It’s the performances that make the movie, with Xu and Ye’s onscreen chemistry making their every scene a small voyage of discovery for both characters.
Ye, a director in his own right, is superb in his first acting role as the scoundrel father, a part that easily could have been overplayed but manages to be both humorous and poignant. Xu is equally good in the less showy role of the daughter, and through body language and speech patterns is convincing as both teen and young woman.
Most other roles are well cast, with Mainland megastar Jiang Wen contribbing a brief appearance as a cop who busts Yu Da’s bar.
Though uncredited, script was inspired by Wen Hui’s novel “Communism in the Evening Breeze,” about a mother-daughter relationship.