“Little Moth,” writer-helmer-editor Peng Tao’s heartbreaking second feature following last year’s “Red Snow,” melds the anger and storytelling scope of Dickens, the doc-influenced immediacy and sensitive gaze of the Dardenne brothers, and the best tendencies of recent Chinese cinema. Further indication of the reach of the country’s indie filmmakers, pic’s depiction of the casual exploitation of orphaned kids by adult scumbags will draw strong fest and distrib interest, and no small controversy on the Mainland.
Things begin quietly, with country bumpkin Luo (Hong Qifa) and wife Guihua (Han Dequn) visiting Hubei province to apparently adopt little Xiao Ezi, aka Little Moth (Zhao Huihui), whose mother has died and whose father is an unemployed drunk. Just as dire is the tot’s inability to walk, due to a condition brought on by toxic blood poisoning. The new parents aren’t acting out of love, however: Luo is desperate to make the big bucks, and purchases Little Moth with the intention of using her to beg alongside Guihua on city streets.
A growing gap subtly develops between husband and wife, however, as Guihua’s maternal instincts kick in, and she begins to care for Little Moth as if she were own. Luo, meanwhile, is intent on saving cash, even if it means not buying meds for the sick girl.
Bit by bit, strangers begin intruding on their scam: Zhong (Zeng Xiaorong) eyes Little Moth on the street and offers to adopt her; two thugs demand protection money from Luo; and a shady figure and fellow child exploiter, Yang (Xu Zelin), tells Luo that he’s onto him. In the tale’s devilish schema, crooks prey on crooks, with innocents left in the middle.
Things fall apart, and the way Peng stages the unraveling of this rather sick family is extraordinarily telling in how it shows those on the lowest rung of China’s social ladder climbing over each other to get ahead. Finale is characteristically subdued and cinematically disciplined for showing rather than telling, but gut-wrenching in its long-term dramatic implications.
Perfs by mostly nonpros and low-key production values are aces and a half, with Hong’s Luo a fascinating portrait of how low a man without resources can stoop. Notably, there’s nary a moment that tries to wring easy melodrama or sentiment, or use cute Zhao to tug at aud heartstrings. This is tough realism in the best sense, where drama and doc intertwine.