Sunday, January 27, 2008

55. Chinese director Yang Zhang's "Luo ye gui gen (Getting Home)" (2007): Beguiling comedy that makes you reflect on human behavior

"A falling leaf returns to its roots” is a Chinese proverb. This endearing film is based on this proverb. It is a modern day story of mainland China--an emerging economic power. Rural migrants are attracted to the cities in search of prosperity. One such 50 year-old-migrant construction worker Zhao (a commendable performance by actor Zhao Benshan), is surprised to find during a drinking bout in a pub that his buddy is not dead drunk but dead as a doornail. As a good peasant would, Zhao vows to keep his promise made during the drinking session that if either buddy died, the other would carry/transport the dead body to the dead man’s village and bury his body there. As a promise is promise, Zhao uses all his wits and physical strength to transport the dead body to the village. The fallen leaf has to return to its roots.

What a yarn, you will say! But hold on. The Chinese director Yang Zhang (also known as Zhang Yang) and his scriptwriter Yao Wang built the film script around a real incident in 2006 when a Chinese peasant did carry a dead buddy to his village oblivious of all Chinese laws that prohibit such an action to ensure that the dead man did not transform into a “hungry ghost.”

Now director Zhang, scriptwriter Wang and a fascinating comic actor Zhao Benshan weave a Pilgrim’s Progress type road-movie story that constantly shifts from escapist top-gear to formidable realism overdrive as it un-spools an array of human behavior--some loathsome, some endearing, some moralizing, some quirky but all very real.

There are vignettes of Asian values. You encounter robbers who appreciate the value of friendship and return their loot to those who honor commitments of friendship. You are shown mothers living as anonymous rag-pickers and professional blood donors, so that their offspring can pursue a comfortable career in the city. Wealthy rural folk do not know who really loves and respects them, and therefore arrange mock funerals following their own faked death to glimpse the truth. There is the philosophical young man who would like to ride to “Tibet” or the roof of the world. There is a family that lives far away from society because the wife/mother has been disfigured by an accident, and yet is a lovely person underneath the scars. There is a truck driver who having lost his love is crestfallen, but needs someone else to set the compass of his life to regain his lost love.

There are other vignettes that show the unhealthy characteristics of economic progress. Construction companies employ migrants but cheat them by paying salaries in counterfeit notes. Highway restaurants overcharge their clients and use thugs to extort money if they don’t pay up. Seedy blood banks pay money for any type of blood donor because there is money in the business. Rich families in cars do not stop to give lifts to the poor and stranded on the roads. Once-robbed travelers do not show compassion to the individual who was responsible for the return of stolen goods—they are concerned with their possessions. Women accuse men of staring at them without bothering to check if the accusation is real or imagined. The list goes on.

The movie underlines that there are two sorts of people. One lot cares for others, empathizes with their problems and helps them get out of their predicaments. The other lot lives for themselves and concentrates on their own material interests. The rural folk seem to fall into the first category, while the neo-rich fall into the other.

The ultimate destination of the “road movie” is the controversial Three Gorges mega-dam. On route to the dam, the viewer can glimpse breathtaking landscapes of China. Is the director feeling sorry for the village of the dead man (and the associated values that go with rural, simple life) that has been covered with the waters of the dam? Only the director can answer, we can only ask the question.

The funny thing about the movie is that while the characters and milieu are Chinese, the essential elements are universal in any economy “progressing” from rich traditional values to a more consumerist, urban rat race. It is no wonder that the film won the 2007 Berlin Film Festival Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Best Asian film NETPAC award at the recent International Film Festival of Kerala. The movie makes you laugh, but tugs at your conscience. The “falling leaf” in your soul, would like to return to “the root” or traditional life styles when people bonded well and were not out to make a quick buck.

Very close in subject and treatment to the 2004 Iranian black comedy Khab e-talkh (Bitter Dreams), director Yang Zhang and scriptwriter Yao Wang need to be complimented for painting a “celluloid” canvas that entertains those who crave for feel-good escapism (amidst all the black humor). The viewer has to discount the fact that the body does not decay and the Zhao never tires carrying a dead man around. While the escapist element is in the foreground, the real strength of the film comes from the realistic vignettes that are not Chinese but universal in values and temperament. Here is yet another Chinese film that entertains and offers ample food for thought.
P.S. The Iranian film Bitter Dreams has been reviewed earlier on this blog.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Well said.