A triumph of vision and talent over the often deadening effect of cheap video, “Taking Father Home” reps a powerful debut by helmer Ying Liang. Shot on a shoestring away from the eyes of the censors, pic uses the hoary tale of a country kid searching for his father in the big city to comment on the problems facing modern China today, from industrial development to natural disasters and forced relocations. This steadily engrossing drama took home the special jury prize at Tokyo Filmex, promising to reward serious fest auds willing to overlook budgetary limitations.
With little more than a great compositional eye and a borrowed video camera, helmer Ying and g.f./producer/co-scripter Peng Shan decamped to Sichuan province, where they roped in Peng’s family and friends as cast and crew. Acting isn’t pic’s strong suit, but such considerations fade into the background when the film is viewed in its organic entirety.
Seventeen-year-old Xu Yun’s (Xu Yun) mother tries to persuade him not to leave the village to seek his father, who abandoned the family six years earlier. With the community waiting for the government to relocate the entire population in preparation for a new industrial park, Xu is determined to bring his errant father home and sets off from the fields for Zigong City.
Penniless and carrying only a couple of snowy white ducks in a basket, Xu searches for the Happiness Hotel, his father’s last known address. In the city, a scarred man (Wang Jie) initially hurls abuse in typical urban style, but then relents, offering to help the kid find a place to stay.
Also befriended by a sympathetic cop (Liu Xiaopei) who tries to convince him to pack it in, Xu stubbornly persists in his search, but the Happiness Hotel is now just an empty building site. Further clues lead to another dead end, and only by pure chance does he find his deadbeat dad, a building speculator, just before the entire city is forced to evacuate in expectation of an impending flood.
Both the encroaching river waters and the force of the narrative build up to a forceful climax, finishing with a painful, emotionally perfect ending.
Ying weaves devastatingly strong critiques of the new China throughout the narrative. This is the China with wildfire capitalism destroying all vestiges of its past, a China too preoccupied with construction to bother with the human cost of wholesale displacement and environmental calamity. With self-congratulatory news broadcasts forming a running backdrop to Xu’s journey, this portrait of a society bulldozing its way to an uncertain future speaks powerfully.
The subtlety of Ying’s visual style and minimalist camera leaves his canvas primed for revealing the underlying message. Employing a dispassionate gaze, he expertly sets his figures within physical space, whether in an overhead shot showing Xu departing the village’s fields or a long shot reducing Xu to the background of anonymous workers’ housing. Better cameras and a larger budget would have improved the beauty, but the message couldn’t be clearer.
Sound quality is variable, and seriously problematic subtitling can provoke snorts where none are intended, but latter is easily correctable and doesn’t diminish Ying’s impressive debut.