The awkward intersection of traditional values with a modernized world has informed countless Chinese films of the past decade. Based on a popular novel, Ann Hui’s “The Postmodern Life of My Aunt” turns its affectionate gaze on a woman of humble origins from the provinces struggling to carve out a dignified life in the unaccommodating urban tangle of Shanghai, where seemingly everyone is focused on personal profit. Better when it acquires a melancholy strain than in the early, more comic action, the film’s warm humanism and Hui’s standing as a director should secure festival play, but its most receptive audience will be at home.
Ye Rutang (Mongolian thesp Siqin Gaowa) is an appealing central character: A woman in her 60s who came to Shanghai years earlier from remote Manchuria without a husband or family to lean on, she’s pragmatic, frugal and self-reliant. But her old-fashioned ways and trusting nature are an ill fit with the increasingly impersonalized world.
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Ye loses a much-needed tutoring job because her standard British English is considered less desirable than American; her visiting nephew (Guan Wenshuo) fakes his own kidnapping to scam money from her; she takes pity on an unfortunate woman (Shi Ke) only to be shocked by her dishonesty; and she’s gently romanced by an amateur Chinese opera singer (Chow Yun-fat), a charming shyster who lures her into investing in a bogus scheme to buy and resell cemetery plots.
Hui and screenwriter Li Qiang have a knack for humorous observation, but the film rambles, the actors tending for too long to overplay the comedy and ignore the underlying poignancy.
It becomes more satisfying when, after Ye has endured financial ruin, emotional hurt, physical injury and guilt over her role in the sad fate of a gossipy neighbor (Lisa Lu), the action takes a more sorrowful turn as her hard-edged daughter (Vicky Zhao Wei) arrives, forcing Ye to confront her past.
The closing scenes in post-industrial Manchuria usher in a welcome, somber change of tone, the dusty streets and rundown buildings looking like a ghost town — a past marginalized almost to the point of eradication.
The contrasts between that setting and the sprawling city, its street markets side by side with upscale hotels and neon-fronted international franchises, are well harnessed by cinematographers Kwan Pun-leung and Yu Lik-wai.
Frequent Takeshi Kitano collaborator Joe Hisaishi’s melodic score embraces both the film’s playful spirit and its more emotional undercurrents.