Controversial Sixth Generation director Zhang Yuan, who turned heads and ruffled Chinese authorities’ feathers with his independently made features “Mama” and “Beijing Bastards,” pays an extended visit to his downstairs neighbors in “Sons.” Tracking the head of the house’s descent from alcoholism into madness, this gritty docudrama, re-enacted by the family themselves, is an audacious but curiously distancing enterprise notable for its unflinching authenticity.
While the film split Rotterdam audiences neatly into love-it or leave-it camps, it won both a Tiger Award and the Fipresci (international critics’) prize and should prove a must-have item for discerning fest programmers worldwide.
Zhang’s resourcefulness as a filmmaker is evident in the fact that the feature was made at all, given the government ruling curtailing his professional activity. Like his docu last year, “The Square,” this modest project allowed him to work with a small crew out of bureaucratic earshot.
The director learned of the woes afflicting the Li family — his neighbors in a residential quarter of Beijing — through their two sons. The idea was developed as a dramatic feature, and the family reportedly volunteered to play themselves. The father, Li Maojie, was brought out of a mental institution for the duration of the shoot. While both of Zhang’s previous narrative features have incorporated substantial documentary elements into their approach, this blend of fact and fiction appears to be new to mainland Sino cinema.
Via photographs and some explanatory narration, Zhang recaps the family’s history and the mother and father’s past as professional ballroom dancers. The film then lurches into a series of drunken altercations and explosive fights. Li senior takes after his boozing father, and his unemployed sons, Ji and Wei, display more than a passing yen for the bottle, creating a vicious family circle that leaves mother Fu Derong exasperated and distraught.
Husband and wife decide to divorce, which gives rise to a surprisingly funny scene with an impatient residents’ committee chief. Regulations permit Li senior to continue living with his family until the divorce is final. He carries on drinking, and when the fighting becomes too much, he drags a mattress into the street so he can bed down away from his persecutors, making a spectacle of the family before the entire neighborhood.
This repetitive, somewhat numbing midsection is the film’s greatest problem, and accounts for its failure to be quite as engrossing as this kind of voyeurism should be. The pace picks up again, however, when Ji smashes a chair over his father’s head, sending him to hospital for multiple stitches. Recovering later at home, Li senior initially delights in playing the wounded martyr, but gradually, the signs of his mental instability prompt his family to have him committed.
As a psychological investigation into alcoholism and its repercussions, and an examination of familial bonds pushed to the limit, the film is only skin-deep. The father acknowledges the extent of his drinking but refuses to stop; the sons have a living negative example before them but travel the same path, abusing themselves and those close to them, with one of them working off his anger by slapping his girlfriend around during rough sex.
The realism of the operation is quite impressive, and the family members are convincing in putting themselves through the wringer. The sensation remains, however, that had this same approach been used to chronicle the tragedy of a family from Alabama, the result would have been fairly unremarkable.
Shot mostly indoors or at night, the film is simply but effectively lit and photographed. Technical level, on what appears to be the slimmest of budgets, is fine all round.