Traditional attitudes toward authority are just one of the many targets in the sights of “Father,” a cheeky tragi-comedy hinged on the uneasy relationship between a rebellious kid and his inadequate, widowed father as they adjust to life together. While pic’s a little uneven in tone and loses its focus in the final reels, this sharply observed, sometimes moving directorial debut by famed bad-boy novelist Wang Shuo could cut a niche career in the West following its world preem at the Locarno festival, where it won the top Golden Leopard award. Pic’s still-banned status in China offers plenty of ad-pub hooks.
Completed in February 1996 and subjected to countless requests for revision by Beijing’s Film Bureau during the spring and summer, pic still ended up on the shelf, a victim of the conservative clampdown that year following a more liberal period. Authorities were said to be uneasy with the general anti-authoritarian tone, though it was the portrayal of the father as a powerless patriarch that likely hit home hardest. (Zhang Yimou’s “Judou” was officially disliked for similar reasons in the 1980s.)
For the pic’s Locarno debut, in the presence of Wang himself, fest director Marco Muller arranged for the sole English subtitled print to be smuggled out; the negative and other prints reportedly remain at the Film Bureau. For the record, print was exactly the same as a subtitled version caught on video by this reviewer in Beijing in mid-1997.
Wang, 42, is far from the average “dissident” beloved of the West. Already a legend in his own country, he’s penned over 20 bestsellers since 1984 and sold more than 10 million copies of his works, centered on bored Beijing youth and social marginals. He’s a smart businessman, a skillful button-pusher (attacking cultural icons like Zhang Yimou), a writer of popular TV soaps and sometimes even the darling of Party ideologues. He recently spent almost two years of “exile” in the U.S.
Adapted from his 1991 novel and updated to 1995 Beijing, “Father” bears several trademarks of a typical Wang work but is tempered by a simple humanity that gives the pic a certain maturity. Peppered throughout with swipes at everything from the local film industry to official platitudes (on the radio, at work and in the father’s homilies to his son), the movie largely succeeds in maintaining a balance between the central story and Wang’s list of targets until veering off during the final going.
Ma Linsheng (co-scripter Feng Xiaogang) is a typical functionary, head of a worker’s committee, who plays the public game by day and vents his frustrations at home by night. Living alone with his rebellious young son, Ma Che (Hu Xiaopei), in an old-style shared courtyard, he leads an emotional double life, exacerbated by the loss of his wife two years earlier.
Opening reels deftly sketch the contrasts between the public and private faces of modern China, with regulated school classes, neighborhood bullies, cheek-by-jowl living conditions and the father’s fantasy life (a striking sequence of him “conducting” some grandiose Western film music at home) all thrown into the mix.
His relationship with his son is volatile, sometimes making sincere attempts to bond with him (doing pushups together or getting drunk), at other times falling back on official slogans or simple bullying to bring the kid into line. Following an initial contretemps in which Ma Che resists criticizing himself in public after insulting a teacher, the two come to an uneasy truce.
To get his dad off his back — and out of the house — the kid turns matchmaker, engineering a marriage between his father and the blousy, businesslike Qi Huaiyuan (Xu Fan), mother of a school friend (Ye Qing).
The scenes between Qi and the father play as increasingly broad comedy, with the former eventually throwing herself at the terrified middle-aged man and (in a satire of costumers like “Raise the Red Lantern”) performing a grotesque song-and-dance before their marriage bed. The movie, a well-observed, grounded study of father and son, starts to spin off into semi-fantasy.
Though in their visual style these latter sequences parody certain films by ’80s Fifth-Generation directors, they’re disruptive to the general tone and move the focus away from the father-son relationship. For much of the pic, that relationship is beautifully played, with the script consistently hinting at a deeper bond between the ill-matched pair.
Feng, a popular actor-director of comedies as well as Wang’s partner in co-producer Beijing Good Dreams, is terrific here. Cast against type, he makes the father a sad but sympathetic figure.
As the young son, Hu is very confident, swinging back and forth between youthful bravado and filial respect, though always addressing his elder as an equal. One touching sequence, in which he steers his drunken father away from an embarrassing dinner with school friends, is among pic’s highlights. Other casting, especially a subtly deglamorized Xu as the potential mate with a voice that grates like ground glass, is also good.
Pic makes abundant use of music, ranging from classical excerpts to a lilting Chinese melody that’s effective but overused. Lensing varies from subtly lit sequences, making play with light, to standard fare. Original Chinese title literally means “Dad,” rather than the more formal “Father.”