A sly, cleverly constructed tale of various characters brought together by an abandoned baby, “The Orphan of Anyang” is shot in the style of a dry, self-conscious art movie from China but has an equally dry sense of humor that undercuts the seeming pretension. This first film by novelist and former a.d. Wang Chao won’t go much further than fests and some specialized TV channels, but announces a new talent to monitor on the indie Mainland scene.
One’s worst fears that this is going to be another navel-gazing study of existential angst, Chinese-style, are raised in the opening minutes as a fortyish guy, Yu Dagang, is shown loafing around a deserted factory like an escapee from an old Antonioni movie. But the movie quickly jumps into its main character’s motives with some quietly charming scenes: Yu, we learn, has been pink-slipped from his job and is reduced to selling his now-useless meal tickets for badly needed cash.
While eating at a noodle stall, the owner asks him to hold a baby who’s been left by a young hooker from Heilongjiang, in the northeast. A note inside the swaddling clothes offers 200 yuan ($25) a month to anyone prepared to care for the sprig. The unmarried Yu jumps at the opportunity to improve his finances and, after meeting the woman, Feng Yanli, in a restaurant, takes the baby home, pretending to neighbors that it’s his sister-in-law’s child.
That’s the setup for a small but neat yarn centered on Yu, Feng and a gangster, Side, who’s dying of leukemia and wants to adopt the baby too. Divided by fadeouts into a series of short paragraphs, pic dips into their lives at various key points over the next few months, as Yu finds his feet economically with a bicycle repair business, Feng moves in with him and forms a de facto family unit and the violent, foul-mouthed Side tries to take the baby by force. A clever coda, set “one month later,” completes the circle.
Set in an average town like hundreds of others in contempo China — in this case, in Henan province — Wang’s movie has an unforced feel for the rhythms of everyday life, shooting largely in fixed setups but without abstracting the settings into some kind of spiritual wasteland. Scenes of Yu and Feng shopping together and wandering through the crowded streets humanize their characters; other sequences, sometimes shot in single, lengthy takes, seem to humorously play on conventions of arty, fest-style Chinese pics.
Performances by the non-pro cast (not identified with their characters in the credits) are very good, especially those of the meek but kindly Yu and the lonely but focused hooker, Feng. Print caught had all end credits only in English and the main title only in French (“L’orphelin d’Anyang”), with no Chinese characters at all. Post-production was done in the Netherlands, clearly to sneak the film out from under the official Chinese radar, and tech credits are all fine.