A fatherless family beset with illnesses and unexpressed emotional undercurrents provides the human background for “Ma Wu Jia,” former animator and tyro feature filmmaker Zhao Ye’s stylish, tragic study of a young man on the verge of adulthood. Zhao pushes the envelope by shifting back and forth in time, but the fleecy nature of his pacing and images more than makes up for any confusion in following what’s fundamentally a simple yet bitter coming-of-age tale. Top-rank fests have already signed on and will continue to do so, though distribs are likely to deem the pic’s nonlinearity a major selling issue.
Young teen Wu-Jia (Li Shixin) adores his little bro Wu-Ding (Zeng Jinlan), not only in the ways he plays with him, but most crucially in his regular donations of blood for the active tyke’s daily transfusions. This leaves Wu-Jia too weak to compete in track and field, and the family doctor informs Wu-Jia’s mom (a music teacher at school) that he can’t donate blood to Wu-Ding indefinitely.
Zhao finds considerable tension between the gradually deteriorating family situation — made worse by mom’s own illness, seemingly brought on by environmental factors — and the gloriously lush, rain-soaked countryside of China’s southeastern Guangxi province; the overwhelming natural beauty of the surroundings seems to mock this weakened family unit as they struggle to keep it together.
The all-seeing widescreen vidcamera keeps Wu-Jia in its sights at almost all moments, and nonpro thesp Li impressively navigates the lad’s growing resentment and anger. The story also emerges as one recalled through Wu-Jia’s impressionistic memories, as his present state and past drama — especially with his mom — interweave in a not always clear narrative direction.
The teen’s startling, life-changing actions will strike some viewers as way over the top. A measure of Zhao’s achievement, though, is that none of these bursts of action ever seem arbitrary, but rather the result of percolating emotions the film has carefully established.
Zhang Yi’s lensing emphasizes the area’s rich greens and the white of milk (an almost festishized symbol here). A misjudged score by Du Kai, Pei Nan and Na Zi, however, pushes sentimental buttons.