Like a slow-acting hallucinogen, Chinese director Yang Pingdao’s audaciously strange and sorrowful feature debut works its magic so gradually that it’s with a slight surprise that halfway through you glance down and realize you’re high off the social-realist ground, suspended surreally in the air. At first a gritty tale of feckless men abandoning their families and women grown hard and mistrustful in their absence, “My Dear Friend” morphs imperceptibly into a poetic fable far weirder and yet more satisfying. It becomes a folk song with a recurring refrain that wraps the hard edges of reality in myth and folklore as surely as the ever-present mist dampens the muddy laneways and squalid structures of its rural village setting.
The prickly, brittle Jingjing (Gabby So) arrives like a dagger into the tranquil backwater hamlet to which Yiming, the young man who got her pregnant, has fled. Radiating city-girl insolence, she discovers no one at home but his aged grandmother A Fang (Jiang Hong), who is pleased at the news of the pregnancy and wants Jingjing to stay, despite her surliness. A broken-down car — and the girl’s insistence on making Yiming take responsibility for the pregnancy — grant her wish, but A Fang has man problems of her own: Her husband Shuimu (Robert Loh) is in failing health and has taken to wandering off. To the disdainful irritation of her neighbors, night after night, A Fang sets off after him in all weathers, calling his name and castigating him loudly when she finds him. “You have a meaner mouth than I do!” exclaims Jingjing admiringly after one of A Fang’s outbursts, and it’s the first inkling of fellow-feeling between these apparently oppositional women.
What Shuimu is actually doing during these prolonged absences (which we’re told echo his own father’s desertion of his mother, as well as Yiming’s cowardice — parental abandonment as genetically inherited disease) seems surprisingly innocent, considering the shroud of secrecy. In long, wordless stretches, he tends to a small plot of vegetables, aided by his silent friend Zhongshen (Lu Haoquan). Sometimes, they shelter from the rain in a little shack with peeling walls nearby. At other times, witnessed by Jingjing, the men climb a steep hillside to burn offerings and light firecrackers over the graves of Shuimu’s ancestors. As the first act draws to its languid close, it seems writer-director Yang is telling a simple, absorbing story of culture clashes and the generational divide in the waterlogged middle of a Chinese nowhere.
But then Shuimu asks Jingjing, whose car has finally been repaired, to take him and his friend to another village, 300 km away. It is where the mute, possibly amnesiac Zhongshen believes he is from, as part of a semi-mythic origin story which involves him jumping into a river as a child to escape the bandits who murdered his kin. On their way along winding country roads that seem permanently to dead end in heavy fog and drizzle, the trio first encounters a strange hollow metal structure, that looks like a headless whale, according to Shuimu, who believes he was a fish in a former life. And then they meet a small boy, who throws firecrackers at Jingjing’s car, prompting her to give chase in the mist. We discover that the little boy, too, has a mute friend called Zhongshen, whom he pulled out of the river and who now trails after him like a shadow.
Motifs recur in unforced but ever-surprising ways: fish and firecrackers and fairy tales. Old wives’ wisdom is treated as a matter of fact, like the young boys slapping their bellies to numb the hunger away, and traditions so old no one really knows how they started, such as the rituals of ancestor worship, are knitted deep into the fabric of everyday life. And everywhere, always, there’s water. Shuimu’s name even contains the word, and as well as the rivers and the rainstorms, the umbrellas and the constantly swishing windshield wipers, there is the vapor that hovers in the air all around and makes everything seem like a ghost of something else. And finally, there’s the sea, which despite its proximity, the old men had never before seen.
The rolling mists give Long Miaoyuan’s expert, handheld, low-contrast camerawork its most stunning vistas, wrapping everything in a Limbo-like half-light. And Li Jinsong’s evocative score incorporates shimmery minor-key melodies and occasional, unexpected bursts of crackling storm-charged static electricity. But more than any aspect of its craft, more even than the lovely, lived-in performances from its elder cast-members, “My Dear Friend” is remarkable for tempering its mood of mystery and melancholy with a strangely unplaceable beauty that has nothing to do with prettiness. Instead, it suggests, softly and obliquely, that while fate forever condemns us to repeat the same mistakes and inflict the same hurt, life after life, still there’s some cool, damp comfort to be had in the ethereal connection those inescapable repetitions forge, to our long-buried ancestors and to our unborn descendants to come.