×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘Fantasia’

Wang Chao's yarn about a working-class family's struggles doesn't live up to his 2006 drama 'Luxury Car.'

With:
Hu Ruijie, Su Su, Zhang Xu, Jian Renzi, Li Ou, Zhang Lu, Wang Xiaomo. (Mandarin dialogue)

Two modes of realism compete for attention in Chinese arthouse helmer-scribe Wang Chao’s “Fantasia,” a glum yarn about a working-class family derailed by the breadwinner’s illness. On the one hand, the film offers a lucid, unsentimental vision of contempo China’s hard economic and social condition that recalls Italian neorealism. On the other, Wang strains for a gritty verite style favored by mainland independent filmmakers that ends up looking ersatz and cliched in this context. Though not as sublimely crafted as his “Luxury Car,” which won the Un Certain Regard prize in 2006, the film should enjoy a long fest life, but might come up short in terms of commercial prospects.

Fantasia” at first plays like an amalgam of mainland Chinese indies by tyro helmers, sporting a roll in the hay that gratuitously involves menstrual blood, as well as a mandatory masturbation scene. The initial focus is unsteady, falling chiefly on high schooler Zhao Lin (Hu Ruijie), a lanky, taciturn loner who loves cutting class to loiter by the gravelly riverbank of the Yangtze.

The story becomes more involving when the rest of Lin’s family is introduced, and the quotidian but generally content life of a working-class family emerges. Lin’s father, Zhao (Zhang Xu), is a longtime worker at a gear factory; his mother, Tang Min (Su Su), runs a newspaper stand, and his nubile elder sister, Qin (Jian Renzi), is quite into her shifty-looking b.f.

A family gathering to celebrate Zhao’s birthday demonstrates that happiness can be found in the simplest things, such as sharing a cake together or hearing Tang sing. As modest as such pleasures may be, Wang proceeds to show how precarious they are: That same night, Zhao has a seizure in bed and is diagnosed with terminal leukemia. Since Zhao’s factory is underperforming, it only commits to paying half his medical bills.

To pay for the expensive surgery and blood transfusions, Tang knocks on every door to borrow money. The responses she gets epitomize quintessential Chinese pragmatism; most equate her devotion to Zhao with an investment with no returns. Tang’s ability to retain her self-respect in these mortifying situations is remarkable, especially on one occasion when she puts an old acquaintance in his place for his feigned generosity.

In stark contrast to the cold, unfeeling people around them, the protags quietly cling to their private codes of duty. Tang reiterates her gratitude to Zhao for providing for her and her young daughter when her song-and-dance troupe disbanded. Qin gets a job as a nightclub waitress to raise money, and when her b.f. wonders why she’d care when Zhao’s not even her biological father, she replies that she owes a lot to him. Even Lin, in his juvenile way, tries to shield his father from harm. It’s all the more disheartening, then, to see them slide into ruin.

As in “Luxury Car,” which also portrayed a daughter trying to conceal her club hostess job from her father and terminally ill mother, Wang’s tone is restrained and nonjudgmental. The understanding he shows for the protags’ expedient choices distinguishes him from the bulk of fest-bound independent films, which often take unqualified potshots at China’s problematic social and political system.

However, rather than elaborating on how the tragedy changes the way the characters relate to each other, or penetrating their inner worlds, the narrative digresses into a lugubrious and pretentious subplot centered on Lin. By now he has become a regular truant, spending hours at the riverbank gazing at a barge on which a middle-aged man (Zhang Lu) and his teenage adopted daughter (Wang Xiaomo) reside; eventually, he falls in with the man’s black-market work and develops some kind of romantic or sexual interest in the daughter. Shot in muted long takes and rigidly framed, the setup doesn’t ring true for a second. If the girl’s background is intended as a parallel with Qin’s, it’s one that goes nowhere dramatically, and the pretentiousness of these scenes are underscored by the man playing “O sole mio” atrociously on his trumpet.

Toward the end a clever but gimmicky fantasy element surfaces, one that ultimately doesn’t live up to the creative possibilities suggested by the title.

The film is set in Chongqing, in southwest China, but it’s hard to get a feel of this inland mega-city from the film’s dismal few locations and bland, washed-out color palette. TV programs reporting on the Beijing Olympics establish the film’s timeframe as 2008, but again, the faceless community in which the characters drift around could just as well exist in the present. Craft contributions are good but unexciting.

Cannes Film Review: 'Fantasia'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2014. Running time: 85 MIN. (Original title: "Huanxiangqu")

Production: (China) A Wutong Films production. (International sales: Les Films du Losange, Paris.) Produced by Lv Jianmin, Wang Chao. Executive producer, Li Longjun.

Crew: Directed, written by Wang Chao. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Zhao Yuqing; editors, Huang Shang, Wang; music, Chen Mingzheng; set decorator, Tian Yulong; costume designer, Lan Yue; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Ran; re-recording mixer, Wang Ran; line producer, Li Longjun; associate producer, Olivier Aknin; assistant director, Tian Guo.

With: Hu Ruijie, Su Su, Zhang Xu, Jian Renzi, Li Ou, Zhang Lu, Wang Xiaomo. (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Atlantics

    Netflix Snags Worldwide Rights to Cannes Winners 'Atlantics,' 'I Lost My Body'

    Mati Diop’s feature directorial debut “Atlantics” and Jérémy Clapin’s animated favorite “I Lost My Body” have both been acquired by Netflix following wins at Cannes Film Festival. “Atlantics” was awarded the grand prix while “I Lost My Body” was voted the best film at the independent International Critics Week. The deals are for worldwide rights [...]

  • Stan Lee, left, and Keya Morgan

    Stan Lee's Former Business Manager Arrested on Elder Abuse Charges

    Stan Lee’s former business manager, Keya Morgan, was arrested in Arizona Saturday morning on an outstanding warrant from the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD’s Mike Lopez confirmed that the arrest warrant was for the following charges: one count of false imprisonment – elder adult; three counts of grand theft from elder or dependent adult, [...]

  • Moby attends the LA premiere of

    Moby Apologizes to Natalie Portman Over Book Controversy

    Moby has issued an apology of sorts after writing in his recently published memoir “Then It Fell Apart” that he dated Natalie Portman when she was 20 — a claim the actress refuted. “As some time has passed I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then [...]

  • Bong Joon-ho reacts after winning the

    Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' Wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes

    CANNES — The 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival wrapped with jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu announcing the group’s unanimous decision to award the Palme d’Or to South Korean director Bong Joon-ho for his sly, politically charged “Parasite.” Following last year’s win for humanistic Japanese drama “Shoplifters,” the well-reviewed Asian thriller represents the yin [...]

  • Invisible Life Brazilian Cinema

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão'

    A “tropical melodrama” is how the marketing materials bill “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.” If that sounds about the most high-camp subgenre ever devised, Karim Aïnouz’s ravishing period saga lives up to the description — high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess, all in the perspiring environs of midcentury Rio de [...]

  • Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The 10 Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The Cannes Film Festival is too rich an event to truly have an “off” year, but by the end of the 72nd edition, it was more or less universally acknowledged that the festival had regained a full-on, holy-moutaintop-of-art luster that was a bit lacking the year before. It helps, of course, to have headline-making movies [...]

  • Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Soaring to $100 Million-Plus Memorial Day Weekend Debut

    Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake is on its way to a commendable Memorial Day weekend debut with an estimated $109 million over the four-day period. The musical fantasy starring Will Smith and Mena Massoud should uncover about $87 million in its first three days from 4,476 North American theaters after taking in $31 million on Friday. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content