A gossamer debut feature that compensates for its lo-fi look with glimpses of profound humanism, Chinese tyro helmer Song Fang’s “Memories Look at Me” explores how recollections of the past inform and create familial cohesion in the present. Gracefully suspended between the docu-fiction genre of producer Jia Zhangke and the gentle observational qualities of helmer Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose “Flight of the Red Balloon” starred Song, the pic nonetheless succeeds in finding its own, low-key groove. Locarno best first-feature winner will next screen at the New York Film Festival, which should further help jumpstart Song’s career.
Though never billed as a straightforward documentary, Song, who studied film at Insas in Brussels as well as the Beijing Film Academy, seems to be playing herself, as do her family members, who appear onscreen alongside the thesp-helmer (all use their own names).
Pic is set mostly inside a nondescript, small apartment in Nanjing, where Fang is visiting her elderly parents (Song Di-jin, Ye Yu-zhu). Although they admit readily to feeling old, they still have a lot of energy. As parents and daughter — who is the younger of two siblings, somewhat unusual in one-child China — sit down to catch up, memories of times past automatically become part of their ambling conversations. Song’s mother recalls the difficulties of having her first child alone, while various acquaintances and family members come by to give the family a chicken or make small talk.
What slowly emerges is a layered portrait of two generations, the one of Song’s parents and the one of their daughter and son, Yuan. The age groups are perhaps divided by different mores, experiences, priorities and the fact they grew up in a different China but, as the title already suggests, what binds them together is stronger than that: shared memories of time spent together, at least emotionally if not always physically. The present seems to be at least partially defined by what they know they’ve shared in the past, and the children’s unspoken realization that in their parents, they can at least partially see what the future has in store for them when they grow old.
Digivid quality is never more than just adequate, and the pic would have been a lot more marketable if it had been shot and lit with proper equipment. Camera setups are simple and static, though Song brings her own energy to the material by occasionally alternating between camera setups during conversations without falling back on classically occidental shot/reverse-shot rhythms. The film closes with a simple, elegiac yet potent visual symbol of life’s inevitable end.