Obviously everyone has their own personal expectations when they come to watch a film, but if you’re going to go the trouble of watching a low-budget independent Chinese film (or even reading a review about it for that matter), made for nothing and starring non-professional actors who seemingly didn’t even get paid for their work, the chances are that you’d at least expect something out of the ordinary. It doesn’t necessarily have to be challenging or groundbreaking, but since the filmmakers have evidently gone to a great deal of effort to make something a little more personal than the average mainstream blockbuster, there’s always the hope that you’ll see something fresh and surprising.
At the very least you could say that Ying Liang’s low-budget, homemade debut feature Taking Father Home certainly sets up a simple but open scenario where anything could happen. A young 17 year-old country boy Xu Yun is determined to travel to the big city of Zigong to look for his father, who abandoned him and his mother six years ago. Rumours have come back to the village that his father is now the boss of a construction company, with a swanky home, new car and new wife. His father clearly doesn’t want to be found, sending 1000 yuan as a kind of pay-off which, since it will help when the family home is pulled down to make way for a new Industrial Estate (ironically to be called the Rice Village Industrial Zone), is gratefully accepted by his former wife. Not by Xu Yun however. He has no money, but he reckons he can sell his two ducks in the city while he tracks down his father and convinces him to come home.
The big city is no place for a naïve country boy, but it’s only when he arrives in Zigong that Xu Yun realises the enormity of the task of finding his elusive father. With no idea how to find the Happiness Inn, No. 16 Happiness Street East – his father’s last known whereabouts - no money and no place to sleep, the young man finds himself seriously out of his depth. Fortunately – it seems - he has met a man on the bus, one much more worldly wise than himself, one who can guide him through the hazards of living in a modern industrial city. Inevitably though, anyone known as Scarface isn’t going to be the best or most trustworthy role model for a young man and Xu Yun soons ends up on the wrong side of the law. A friendly policeman however tries to help him out, but the boy’s father seems to have disappeared without leaving a trace.
The naïve country folk lost in the big city storyline is nothing new, certainly not in Chinese cinema anyway, it being used most recently in Wang Chao’s Luxury Car, but it is also a device that is present throughout the filmmaking career of Zhang Yimou. Yimou has done variations of peasant folk in the big city in The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less, and has even turned it around the other way when a city boy goes to look for his father in a remote provinces of China in The Road Home and Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles. In all those cases, the journey is undertaken to allow the director to explore a specific theme – in the latter two Yimou films mentioned above, it’s to examine the links between father and son, tying them to a deep-rooted connection with the land, and in the former two films, it’s used to highlight the plight of millions of citizens in remote locations who have largely been forgotten about in the rush to industrialise China. To some extent it’s the intention of Taking Father Home to take on both these themes, and more than that, it manages to bring both the personal and the political together, and it does so in a clever and amusing way.
The unpredictability of the situations faced by the young man are consequently – as one would hope – indeed strange and amusing, the whole experience having a strong edge of surreality about it. And it’s the kind of surrealism that you can only get from reality, the kind of reality that has been distorted beyond the recognition of a stranger in a strange land – which is just about as good a way as any of describing the experience of many Chinese peasants faced with upheaval when caught-up in the nation’s headlong rush into the modern globalised world. This metaphor is extended to the journey of a young Chinese man from the country looking for a father who has given up on his village family to sell his soul and make millions by working as a building contractor. Angry at what his father has done, Xu Yun however finds that in order to survive there are one of two paths he can follow, one following a new father figure who can take him down the road of criminality or the other who is on the side of justice.
The decision for Xu Yun is a tough one and even despite the limitations of budget, Ying Liang’s film manages to raise the funny little personal drama to another level, one that through connecting it to the floods being experienced in the city (one of course of many natural disasters the country and its people have been suffering of late) it succeeds in taking naturally to an almost apocalyptic level.
Taking Father Home is released in the China by Fanhall Films. The disc is in PAL format and is not region encoded.
The transfer is presented non-anamorphically and curiously windowboxed slightly to a ratio of about 1.60:1. Apparently filmed digitally, but not in High Definition, it’s doubtful that there would be anything to be gained from an anamorphic presentation in any case. The image then might be a little bit soft, show some signs of faint macroblocking artefacts, but generally, the presentation is more than acceptable. While it does have a slightly digital feel, movements are smooth, stable and free of flicker.
The soundtrack is presented not in Dolby Digital, but the higher quality PCM stereo. Not that it makes a lot of difference here, since the sound was evidently subject to the same low-budget limitations that the film was shot in, so there is not much refinement to the mix. The sound is certainly strong, loud, even piercing in places and a little bit harsh, but it’s generally fine, allowing effects and dialogue to be clearly heard. Realistically, it’s hardly going to be much better than this.
There are optional English subtitles provided (and separate Chinese subtitles also). The translation and grammar are good (apparently translated by Tony Rayns), but the font used and the tight spacing could be a little difficult to read on some display devices.
There is a strong selection of extra features – some of them however are in Chinese only, but others are subtitled in English or don’t require subtitles.
An Interview with Ying Liang and Tony Rayns (23:23) seems initially promising, but although the questions are posed by Rayns in English, the director’s answers are in Chinese, with only Chinese subtitles provided. Likewise, the full-length Commentary by Peggy Chiao is in Chinese only. The Trailer (2:24) doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but it does have fixed English subtitles. It shows perhaps too many of the film’s unusual scenes. The Original Music (21:49) is a nice feature, allowing the film’s distinctive soundtrack by Zhang Xiau, divided into 8 sections, to be heard in full PCM Stereo.
Also of considerable interest is Ying Liang’s Short Film The Missing House (28:15). Clearly an early version of the feature and apparently based on a true story, the themes here are very familiar – a father/son relationship, the industrialisation of the country and the upheaval endured by ordinary citizens. A 17 year-old young man, Chen Jun, travels to the big city of Zigong to find a house that has been left for him by his father, but it proves almost impossible to locate in a rapidly developing city. The quality of the transfer here is much the same as the main feature. It has however fixed English and Chinese subtitles, the English having a few typographical errors.
Ying Liang’s Taking Father Home certainly lives up to and perhaps exceeds whatever expectations the viewer might have of a low-budget, independent film shot in China by a first-time director, presenting a deceptively simple and humorous situation that nonetheless gives the viewer an insight into the complexity of the issues affecting ordinary people in modern China. Like the film itself, the DVD production values are similarly low-budget – and the DVD is correspondingly very cheap via the link below to YesAsia – but effort has clearly gone into including some good extra features.