A beautifully shot and played study of an eatery owner coming to terms with her life and relationships, “Life Show” reps the finest work to date by Chinese helmer Huo Jianqi, whose pics (“Postmen in the Mountains,” “A Love of Blueness”) fill in the much-ignored middle ground between the arty and the mainstream in mainland production. Though Western buying habits probably mean this will not get much theatrical exposure, film deserves more festival dates and acquisition by upscale webs.
Though never specified, movie is set and lensed in Chongqing, with d.p. Sun Ming’s full-bodied lensing capturing the city’s unique geography and clammy, overcast climate in a way rarely seen since Que Wen’s period meller, “Cold Night” (1984). In one of its old-style night-market streets, vibrant with color and sound, thirtysomething Lai Shuangyang (Tao Hong)runs a small restaurant specializing in duck necks.
Shuangyang’s tough glamour and slightly distracted air masks the fact that her life is a mess. The night-market street is under threat of redevelopment, and her younger brother, Jiujiu, whom Shuangyang effectively raised after their mother’s death, is in a sanatorium for drug abuse. Her assistant, Mei (Yang Yi), who’s in love with him, tries cutting her wrists in desperation; and Xiaojin (Pan Yueming), the waspish wife of Shuangyang’s older brother, Shuangyuan, keeps parceling her young son, Duo’er, off on her. The wrinkle here is that Duo’er is more than just Shuangyang’s nephew: After losing a child of her own, Shuangyang suckled the kid because Xiaojin was dry.
On paper, the story seems ripe for melodrama, but helmer Huo directs with a cool, methodical hand, with all the backstories gradually emerging in a natural way. Shuangyang sets out to put her life in order with military precision, patiently nursing Jiujiu and Mei through their separate crises, and taking care of Duo’er between running her business. In a further subplot, she also decides to reclaim a family house loaned to a neighbor during the Cultural Revolution — a complex process which involves asking a favor of Housing Bureau head Zhang (Luo Deyuan) and patching things up with her father and stepmother.
Running behind all these developments in the first half, and only assuming prominence in the latter stages, is a growing friendship with a middle-aged businessman, Zhuo Xiongzhou (Tao Zeru), who’s been eating at her stall and eyeing her quietly for over a year. In a lovely scene at the 45-minute mark, the two finally have a beer together and share their life stories. Amid all her other problems, Shuangyang decides to give Xiongzhou a try, with unexpected results.
Though the role of Shuangyang really demands an older-looking, less glamorous actress, Tao Hong (not to be confused with the identically-named actress in “A Beautiful New World”) gives a wonderfully shaded perf, her strong, challenging eyes capable of coyness or flirtatiousness at a moment’s notice. As the outwardly mellow businessman, Tao Zeru is well cast, his experience showing in later scenes between the pair. Pan rather overplays bitch-on-wheels Xiaojin, but the rest of the ensemble is very fine, with Luo especially affecting as the Housing Bureau head with family problems of his own.
Above all, pic has a wonderful sense of stillness, reinforced by Wang Xiaofeng’s melancholic, almost ghostly synths score and Huo’s occasional habit of focusing on tiny, passing details (hands brushing against each other, etc.) as grace-notes to the story. And as a believable tapestry of life in contempo China, the film is spot on.