Ace cinematographer Gu Changwei, who’s worked with Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and Jiang Wen in his native China, plus Robert Altman on “The Gingerbread Man,” makes an impressive helming debut with “Peacock.” Long-limbed portrait, set during 1977-84, of a working-class, urban family is initially slow to spin its magic but gradually weaves an involving web of believable characters, accretion of local detail, and interlocking stories centered on the three grown children. Arty but accessible entry – a late standout in Berlin’s uneven competition – looks set for future fest kudos and niche business with upscale Asiaphile auds.
Pic is set in the average, rather depressed town of Heyang, in Anyang county, Henan province, south of Beijing. China is just beginning to rub its eyes after the political bender of the Cultural Revolution and trying to get to pull itself together to face real life again.
The Gao family is first introduced eating together in the outdoor corridor by their apartment. The grouping is repeated as a kind of paragraph stop between the sections of the movie centered first on the daughter, Weihong (Zhang Jingchu), and then her brothers, Weiguo (Feng Li) and Weiqiang (Lu Yulai).
Weihong is an attractive, spirited young woman of around 20. (Exact ages, like the passage of time in the pic, are never specified.) Stuck in a boring job in an orphanage, she dreams of joining the local paratroop regiment, especially when the glamor of the profession takes human shape one day in a handsome Beijinger (Yu Xiaowei) who parachutes down into a field one hot summer’s day.
When that doesn’t work out, Weihong finds some solace outside work in a friendship with an old accordion player (Wang Yingjie), then, in quiet desperation, precipitously marries an official’s driver, Xiaowang (Shi Junhui), and leaves home to start a new life.
Hour-long opening seg sets up the film’s special rhythm. Occasional long takes sit side by side with more regular editing; there are several charming, buoyantly-scored sequences, such as Weihong riding through town trailing a blue parachute from her bike; and large ellipses in the narrative move things along in the way of remembrances of things past.
Though some of this stretches audience patience, and grates stylistically against the general tenor, they always contain enough character substance, or small details about the slowly changing times, not to be just affectations.
While also updating Weihong’s story, next 50 minutes center on the elder brother, Weiguo, a fat simpleton who’s made fun of and can’t hold down a job, but finally shows he isn’t as dumb as he looks when he’s matched in an arranged marriage to the plain but smart Jin Zhi (Wang Lan).
Final half-hour centers on the youngest sibling, the quiet and skinny Weiqiang, who’s also pic’s occasional narrator. After being kicked out by his father, Weiqiang goes AWOL, returning in very different, more confident guise with a songstress wife (An Jing).
Weiqiang’s story seems to have suffered the most in the film’s tortuous postproduction, as a mass of material was organised into acceptable length. (Some of the many versions ran over three hours, per press notes.) By pic’s end, there’s still a very satisfying sense of having lived alongside the family as both it, and the country itself, moved from disfunctionality to the beginnings of a new self-confidence.
Firsttime feature scripter Li Qiang, 35, grew up in Anyang, and the wealth of detail in his writing is treated in a very cinematic way by Gu, who never allows it to overwhelm the characters. Music is also nicely employed, alongside terrific lensing by Yang Shu, to subtly lift ordinary scenes of everyday life one tiny notch up from plain reality.
Most notably, despite the sometimes disheartening behavior on screen, pic has a warm, life-affirming heart – of conflicts worked out by communal values and not, as in the works of directors like Jia Zhangke, over-aestheticised into studies of alienation and self-absorption.
Led by a wonderful perf from Zhang (in her feature debut) as the dreamily dogged – and, in her own way, also slightly screwed-up – Weihong, casting is fine down the line, bolstered by vets such as Huang Meiying as the patient mother. Tech package, with sound mastered in Japan, is fine. Title refers to the final scene in which the leads watch a peacock couple in a zoo, the spread fan of the male symbolizing the humans’ aspirations for beauty and prosperity.