Two modes of realism compete for attention in Chinese arthouse helmer-scribe Wang Chao’s “Fantasia,” a glum yarn about a working-class family derailed by the breadwinner’s illness. On the one hand, the film offers a lucid, unsentimental vision of contempo China’s hard economic and social condition that recalls Italian neorealism. On the other, Wang strains for a gritty verite style favored by mainland independent filmmakers that ends up looking ersatz and cliched in this context. Though not as sublimely crafted as his “Luxury Car,” which won the Un Certain Regard prize in 2006, the film should enjoy a long fest life, but might come up short in terms of commercial prospects.
“Fantasia” at first plays like an amalgam of mainland Chinese indies by tyro helmers, sporting a roll in the hay that gratuitously involves menstrual blood, as well as a mandatory masturbation scene. The initial focus is unsteady, falling chiefly on high schooler Zhao Lin (Hu Ruijie), a lanky, taciturn loner who loves cutting class to loiter by the gravelly riverbank of the Yangtze.
The story becomes more involving when the rest of Lin’s family is introduced, and the quotidian but generally content life of a working-class family emerges. Lin’s father, Zhao (Zhang Xu), is a longtime worker at a gear factory; his mother, Tang Min (Su Su), runs a newspaper stand, and his nubile elder sister, Qin (Jian Renzi), is quite into her shifty-looking b.f.
A family gathering to celebrate Zhao’s birthday demonstrates that happiness can be found in the simplest things, such as sharing a cake together or hearing Tang sing. As modest as such pleasures may be, Wang proceeds to show how precarious they are: That same night, Zhao has a seizure in bed and is diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Since Zhao’s factory is underperforming, it only commits to paying half his medical bills.
To pay for the expensive surgery and blood transfusions, Tang knocks on every door to borrow money. The responses she gets epitomize quintessential Chinese pragmatism; most equate her devotion to Zhao with an investment with no returns. Tang’s ability to retain her self-respect in these mortifying situations is remarkable, especially on one occasion when she puts an old acquaintance in his place for his feigned generosity.
In stark contrast to the cold, unfeeling people around them, the protags quietly cling to their private codes of duty. Tang reiterates her gratitude to Zhao for providing for her and her young daughter when her song-and-dance troupe disbanded. Qin gets a job as a nightclub waitress to raise money, and when her b.f. wonders why she’d care when Zhao’s not even her biological father, she replies that she owes a lot to him. Even Lin, in his juvenile way, tries to shield his father from harm. It’s all the more disheartening, then, to see them slide into ruin.
As in “Luxury Car,” which also portrayed a daughter trying to conceal her club hostess job from her father and terminally ill mother, Wang’s tone is restrained and nonjudgmental. The understanding he shows for the protags’ expedient choices distinguishes him from the bulk of fest-bound independent films, which often take unqualified potshots at China’s problematic social and political system.
However, rather than elaborating on how the tragedy changes the way the characters relate to each other, or penetrating their inner worlds, the narrative digresses into a lugubrious and pretentious subplot centered on Lin. By now he has become a regular truant, spending hours at the riverbank gazing at a barge on which a middle-aged man (Zhang Lu) and his teenage adopted daughter (Wang Xiaomo) reside; eventually, he falls in with the man’s black-market work and develops some kind of romantic or sexual interest in the daughter. Shot in muted long takes and rigidly framed, the setup doesn’t ring true for a second. If the girl’s background is intended as a parallel with Qin’s, it’s one that goes nowhere dramatically, and the pretentiousness of these scenes are underscored by the man playing “O sole mio” atrociously on his trumpet.
Toward the end a clever but gimmicky fantasy element surfaces, one that ultimately doesn’t live up to the creative possibilities suggested by the title.
The film is set in Chongqing, in southwest China, but it’s hard to get a feel of this inland mega-city from the film’s dismal few locations and bland, washed-out color palette. TV programs reporting on the Beijing Olympics establish the film’s timeframe as 2008, but again, the faceless community in which the characters drift around could just as well exist in the present. Craft contributions are good but unexciting.