Chinese director Zhang Yang (“Shower”) raises the bar in both his own career and Mainland filmmaking in general with “Quitting,” a filmic reinterpretation of the true story of actor Jia Hongsheng’s descent into drugs during the ’90s. Neither docudrama nor straight biopic — Jia, his family, friends and doctors all play themselves — Zhang’s third feature is his most ambitious and challenging to date, melding his interests in theater, film and music into an always cinematic, somewhat Brechtian form. Wide fest play already is assured, though pic will need strong critical support to make much of an impression beyond niche situations. Trimming by about 10-15 minutes would be a help in the commercial arena.
Movie is the artiest of Beijing-based Imar Films’ five to date, repping a considerable leap from its debut production, Zhang’s “Spicy Love Soup” (1998). Created by U.S.-born Peter Loehr to produce quality, contempo-set films principally for a Mainland audience, Imar has become progressively more attuned to the offshore market since “Shower” drew major kudos two years ago. For the U.S., Sony Classics has added “Quitting” to its growing pile of specialized Chinese movies.
Over a montage of street shots, ordinary people in China are asked if they’ve heard of Jia. Some say he was hot in the early ’90s, others that he was on drugs, had a breakdown and died. Then Jia himself appears against a black background and is asked if he’d agree to direct a stage play about himself, with his parents playing themselves.
Device of characters talking straight to camera recurs as “Quitting” settles into more conventional mode, showing the parents, both theater actors, retiring early and moving to Beijing back in ’95 to care for their son. Longhaired, head-banded and with a vacant air, Jia treats them arrogantly, with none of the traditional child-parent respect. Also sharing the apartment is Jia’s younger sister.
First third of the movie has considerable fun with the family’s dysfunctionality, with Jia breaching Chinese family codes and the parents alternately confused, offended and caring. After seeking the advice of a doctor, mom and dad buy their son a bike to tool around the capital but — in a delicious parody of mainstream pics — cycle behind him to make sure he doesn’t fall prey to drug-dealers.
Script pushes the comic envelope further when Jia encourages his father to wear tight jeans, drink beer with him by the roadside and buy him a tape of his idol John Lennon, whom Pops has never heard of. At this stage, the movie seems to be a gentle satire of changing family relationships in modern China, enlivened by a pointed visual style (careful framing, splashes of color in Jia’s apartment).
Meanwhile, Jia himself has begun to fill in some of the background, direct to camera: How, exhausted from making movies, he first got on to drugs in ’92 during a theater production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” directed by Zhang, but now is clean.
As the father tries to get his son to open up and rebuild their relationship, more memory flashbacks by Jia follow his downward spiral from ’92: the influence of rock musician Shun Xing, who briefly moved in with him, and his sister’s patient help in paying bills and buying food.
Throughout, Zhang Yadong’s accessible music score adds warmth and emotion to the increasingly raw material.
Around halfway, however, as events move into ’96, pic starts to take a much darker tone, with the parents close to exasperation and Jia himself — in a shocking scene that breaches every convention of Chinese family life — directly insulting his elders. Jia, we subsequently learn, is back on heroin and becomes increasingly subject to visions.
It’s here, around the hour mark, that the film loses its momentum and becomes repetitious: For starters, an entire flashback centered on musician friend Lijie could be eliminated. Soon afterward, however, Zhang refreshes the mix with a sudden change of perspective that leads to the semi-tragic, semi-ironic final act, set in a mental institution.
Lighter coda, set in 1997, neatly refers back to earlier scenes, with moving effect.
For Western auds, there’s absolutely nothing new in the basic story of drug addiction. What gives “Quitting” its freshness is its setting in a country that often denies it has such problems and the decision to anchor the film strongly within the Chinese family fabric. Astute observers will note all kinds of small parodies of officialdom and traditional behavior, though at heart the movie — made in full view of the official radar — is not trying to subvert any status quo.
Drawing remarkable perfs from his real-life cast (especially Jia Fengsen as the father), Zhang has simply told a colleague’s story in a no-holds, sometimes abstract but always undidactic way, and with considerable cinematic craft. However, given the double standards by which Mainland Chinese cinema is judged in the West, some crix may see it in more political terms.
Original title means “Yesterday,” presumably referring to both the past and Lennon’s classic song.