As if the subject of child abduction weren’t enough to get anyone’s blood boiling, throw in China’s one-child policy (no replacements allowed without a death certificate) and you have the makings of high-stakes melodrama. For its first hour, Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s overlong and heavy-handed “Dearest” reeks of self-righteous social-issue filmmaking, laying on the violins as a divorced father scrambles to retrieve his kidnapped son. But then quite suddenly, at roughly the pic’s midway point, the desperate protag finds the child, and the movie takes a sharp turn into far more interesting, morally complex territory, giving global distribs reason to take interest.
On the strength of his film “Comrades: Almost a Love Story,” Chan was named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 1998, and though he’s subsequently become a major box office force in Asia, his films have received only limited exposure beyond the festival circuit abroad. With “Dearest,” he segues into feel-bad “Babel” territory, though instead of inventing an emotionally manipulative story from scratch, he turns to a true story as source material.
In its boo-hoo opening stretch, “Dearest” delights in lingering on irrelevant details — neighborhood cats looking lost in the gutter, chewing gum stuck to an overhead power line, teenagers arguing in the Internet cafe — the day that Tian Wen-jun (Huang Bo) loses track of his 3-year-old son, Pengpeng. One moment, the boy is surrounded by friends outside the local playground, the next he wanders off alone, following the smiley-face sticker on the back of his mom’s car (the woman, Lu Xiao-juan, is played by Hao Lei). Just as she drives off, he’s scooped up by a barely glimpsed stranger.
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We can guess most of what happens for the next hour: There’s panic and tears, an unhelpful visit to the Shenzhen police, followed by an improbable near-miss chance to intercept the kidnapper at the Luoko Train Station. It all seems a bit too pat, though Chan does manage to spice up this obligatory stretch with details specific to the case, including Tian’s attempts to meet with con men hoping either to collect the reward or to offer their own kids as substitute. At one point, the divorced couple even join a support group, making friends with coping captain Han (Zhang Yi).
Collectively, the parents’ desperation manifests itself in troubling ways, as when Tian spots a suspected child trafficker from the window of the group bus, convincing the other parents to run the van off the road and chase its driver into an open field. Two years later, when he receives a tip suggesting his son has been spotted in Anhui (13 hours away by train), the film reserves its relief, watching in semi-horror as Tian and his ex-wife rationalize the decision to steal a child they believe to be theirs “back” from its new mother (Zhao Wei).
Instead of marking the happy ending, that’s the moment things really start to get interesting. Like Natalie Wood’s Debbie in “The Searchers,” Pengpeng isn’t the same person after he is rescued. He doesn’t remember how to speak Mandarin and resists adjusting back to his forgotten birth parents. And the woman who raised him — plus a baby sister of unknown provenance — convincingly claims that she didn’t realize he was stolen, giving her reason to sue for custody of one or both of the children.
“Dearest” may not be a terribly sophisticated film, falling back on swirling cameras and an overemphatic piano and string score to goose our emotions, but it hits audiences twice, aiming first for the heart and later for the head, as it raises intriguing questions about how the authorities ought to handle such an unusual situation. (Tian and Lu are the only parents in their group to recover their stolen child — a development that nearly sends Han over the edge.)
In a daring move, the film also withholds its strongest performer, Zhao, until the midway point. Whereas the other cast members deliver flat, predictable performances, Zhao brings contradictions and intrigue to her character. Though we have every reason to hate her, instead we feel for her situation, which takes her segment of the film into territory where by-the-book morality doesn’t necessarily seem to apply. A coda featuring footage of the cast alongside the real people that inspired their roles adds a nice closing touch, though foreign distribs ought to redo the corny chyrons spelling out what happened next.