Film Review: ‘Forgetting to Know You’

This finely chiseled domestic meller represents a promising debut by Hong Kong-based helmer Quan Ling

Forgetting to Know You

A finely chiseled domestic meller that proceeds with a painful sense of inevitability, “Forgetting to Know You” follows a loving marriage that crumbles under the weight of economic pressures and personal insecurities. Working from a multilayered screenplay that reflects her skills as a novelist, Hong Kong-based, Chongqing-born helmer Quan Ling fashions her debut with an astute eye for contempo Chinese mores and a femme-centric slant toward her wayward protags, played with bruising intensity by seasoned thesps. The imprimatur of Jia Zhangke, producing as part of his “Wings” project kickstarting new talent, should parlay the pic into respectable fest play.

Cai Weihang (Guo Xiaodong) and Xuesong (Tao Hong) live with their 7-year-old daughter, Yuanyuan (Zhang Wan), in the dusty town of Baisha, a few hours’ ride from Chongqing, one of China’s five central cities. While Xuesong fritters away her life at the dingy convenience store she runs, Cai’s job as a carpenter is threatened by the impending closure of his furniture workshop. The cracks in their marriage are apparent in the fraught opening scene, when Cai’s guilt-tripping mother causes friction between the couple. Another telling sign is their mutual distrust, as husband and wife surreptitiously go through each other’s wallets and cell-phone messages.

Xuesong’s offhand flirtations with layabout cabbie Wu (Zi Yi) don’t go unnoticed by Cai, but he’s even more rankled by her past relationship with regional property magnet Yang Jiucheng (Chongqing-born helmer-producer Zhang Yibai). It’s an affair that Cai and indeed the whole town won’t let her forget, as photos of her and Yang from their high-school days are still being posted all over the Internet.

Quan knits together a plethora of everyday setbacks, charting a painful, repetitive cycle in which the protags hurt each other and then try to make amends. When the tension builds to an act of violation, the biggest shock is not the extent of Cai’s pent-up rage, but rather how much Xuesong is willing to put up with to hold things together. The characters’ unfathomable reactions, despite the conventionality of their situations, get across the film’s point that lovers are so often strangers to each other (also implied in the Chinese title “Unfamiliar”). Judiciously downplaying the story’s latent melodrama, Quan offers no pat solutions and leaves the ending open, if also a bit abrupt.

Tao is gently mesmerizing as a feisty, resourceful woman who’s unapologetic about her sex appeal and refuses to give up without a fight. It’s precisely these qualities that hold Cai’s heart, even as they wound the failed breadwinner’s sensitive ego. Ruggedly handsome Guo keeps the impetuous Cai from appearing intentionally cruel, balancing the role with moments of fatherly affection toward Yuanyuan and boyish contrition toward Xuesong. Zi Yi exudes roguish charm as Xuesong’s old suitor, his true intentions eventually emerging as Tao’s distress escalates.

Craft contributions by lenser Nelson Yu Lik-wai and composer Lim Giong (both Jia regulars) give this modest work a polished sheen. Yu’s richly textured cinematography conveys the stifling atmosphere of small-town life at the edge of a bustling metropolis, accentuated by the blistering heat, which makes the sweat-soaked protags’ feelings of desire and unrest all the more palpable. Smooth traveling shots of the characters weaving around town on motorcycles keep the narrative from sliding into a languorous rhythm. But the pic’s strongest suit is Lim’s contemplative score, which abstains from drowning the drama in sentimentalism.

Forgetting to Know You
Mo sheng

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 13, 2013. (Also in Hong Kong Film Festival.) Running time: 88 MIN.

An Xstream Pictures, Hansen Media presentation of an Xstream Pictures production. Produced by Jia Zhangke. Executive producers, Jia Zhangke, Sara Po. Co-executive producer, Wang Jing.

Directed, written by Quan Ling. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Nelson Yu Lik-wai; editor, Wang Yuan; music, Lim Giong; art director, Liu Weixin; set decorator, Song Bingquan; costume designer, Wang Tao; sound (Dolby Digital), Zhang Yang; visual effects supervisor, Xiao Gang; associate producer, Zhang Dong, Eva Lam; assistant directors, Li Jun, Ji Jintong, Gao Zhigang;

With: Tao Hong, Guo Xiaodong, Zi Yi, Zhang Wan, Zhang Yibai.

(Sichuan dialect, Mandarin dialogue)