Indie Chinese helmer Li Ying paints his most accessible and structured work in “Mona Lisa,” an initially slowburning but quickly involving portrait of sundered family ties in rural Fujian province. Though this is strictly fest and cable fare, auds put off by Li’s previous yawners (“2H,” “Flying Flying,” “Dream Cuisine”) should give this a chance.
Story is basically told through the eyes of 18-year-old Qiong (Cai Junqiong), who returns to her native county of Putian after a spell away from some (as yet) undefined family troubles. An adopted daughter, she finds granny has been diagnosed with cancer and, even if the family can afford the operation, there are not guarantees.
Qiong’s elder sister, Xiuxiu (Huang Xiumei), who’s married with a kid and now technically outside the family, asks Qiong to arrange for their mother (Deng Zhenying) to get special permission to visit granny before the latter breathes her last. Turns out mom and dad are in jail for some (as yet) undefined crime.
Films turns into an ironic dance with well-meaning but paper-obsessed Chinese bureaucracy to get an overnight release for the mother, who’s in a detention center across the border in Leiyang, Hunan province. After long negotiations, Qiong sets out, to find her adoptive mother bitter and hostile. But the long train ride back and eventual family reunion proves fruitful for all parties, partly healing the female divisions within the family.
This is at least the third cut of the film, which carries a 2005 copyright date: a previous version screened at the Hong Kong fest last April. Bt the running time now feels right and, though Li’s direction is predictably low key and observational, it’s never grindingly slow.
Semi-docu, but never visually shakey, look grounds the story in its rural setting, and there are plenty of ironic moments in its portrait of peasant stubbornness and official procrastination. A scene with a friendly but spectacularly unhelpful village secretary is right on the money, and a railroad station scene in which Qiong and her adoptive mother start to reach out to each other is quite touching.
Perfs are natural by the non-pro cast, who use their actual names. HD lensing is fine, though use of classical bon-bons on the soundtrack may seem cliched to western viewers.
Title refers to a traveling advertising campaign by the Mona Lisa Stone & Marble Co., seen at start and end, which reps all the entrepreurial gaudiness of modern China.