A microcosm of China past and present flows through Xu Tong’s intimate docu “Shattered,” in which the maverick indie filmmaker continues to refine his techniques and concerns shown in his previous “Wheat Harvest” and “Fortune Teller.” Xu’s ability to hone in on colorful characters is unerring, with loquacious Tang Xixin and his sharp-tongued daughter Tang Caifeng (last seen in “Fortune Teller”) dominating the screen. They also rep two very different generations with engaging candor, likely to spark interest from adventurous fest programmers.
“Old Man Tang,” as he’s nicknamed (also the pic’s original, less emphatic title), is an 80-year-old widower and retired vet of the railroads, which he good-naturedly acknowledges in opening minutes. Living alone in a ramshackle house in northeast Hebei province, he finds himself constantly hosting his grown children, though Xu makes it abundantly clear that while Tang barely tolerates most of his kids, he maintains a close relationship with Caifeng.
It’s easy to see why. As she showed in “Fortune Teller,” Caifeng, operating in the shady prostitution business but trying to diversify with an equally illegal mining operation, is her own woman and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Hot-tempered Tang has survived his own travails and never hesitates to tell Xu (handling his characteristically up-close-and-personal camera and sound) exactly what’s on his mind. Each, in a sense, sees a reflection in the other.
Stories of Tang’s past, and by extension China’s, simply pour out of him. Despite many bitter memories (the Communist Party dismissed him when he refused to go to work so he could attend to his ailing young daughter), Tang still keeps lovingly framed portraits on his living room wall of key communist heroes of the 20th century. Such details are important to Xu as a filmmaker: When Caifeng oversees some minor home improvements and the portraits are taken down, it first appears that the symbolic, musty antiques may be put away for good; but no, they’re soon hung back up on the repainted wall.
The father’s endless memory lane alternates with the daughter’s more dangerous current efforts, including trying to help her imprisoned goddaughter Yang Yang, boost business at her brothel, deal with the mine (which Xu apparently had little access to) and generally stay one step ahead of the law. While Caifeng seems to find failure everywhere she turns, she nevertheless maintains a pluckiness and determination that belie the title’s air of defeat. What is shattered, as seen through the prism of this complex family, is a cultural continuity that was maintained in Chinese households in previous generations. Now, the elders are left to more or less stew in the past, while the youngsters must live on the edge.
As usual, Xu’s HD lensing is rough and ready, hardly refined aesthetically but vibrantly immediate. Sound and subtitling are on the rough side.