SGIFF Review: Red Amnesia by Wang Xiaoshuai

Wang Xiaoshuai commonly groups and hails under the loose collective of filmmakers known as the ‘Sixth Generation’ of the Cinema of China. His films tend to be known for their sensitive portrayal of teens and youths, and films to his credit include Beijing Bicycle (2001), So Close to Paradise (1998), Drifters (2003) and Shanghai Dreams (2005).

Along with the other urban directors of his generation, Xiaoshuai’s films have a realistic documentary style to accompany content that fleshes out a changing and contemporary China.  According to Senses of Cinema, the visual style, due partly to budget constraints, are ‘less colourful, […] shot on location, sometimes using non-professional actors.’

Qin Hao, Feng Yuanzheng and Lu Zhong playing Bing (younger son), Mrs Deng and Jun (older son).

Red Amnesia (2014) itself, is a film that transcends its present circumstances by dragging along with it baggage from the past, and is a film that explores guilt and what happens when unresolved conflicts from the past race to catch up with us, when we are most vulnerable, many years after. I am first reminded of the film Atonement (2007), where the protagonist does struggle with facing the immense consequences of a self-serving act decades ago, but it is pared down in pathos in this film. Perhaps this is due to the more conservative show of expression in Asian families, and the fact that the suffering of the Zhao family is never really given attention till the late part of the film. Therefore for the bulk of it, the film is more a psychological thriller in solving the mystery of the recalcitrant prank caller, and trying to link the lives of the Deng family with the rootless teenager, played by actor Shi Liu.

Between our piqued curiosity of solving the mystery of the prank caller, we also see the thinly veiled cracks within the family fabric of the Deng family. Mrs Deng (played by Lu Zhong) is a dedicated grandmother and mother, who scuttles to take on the duties of picking her grandson up from school, making his favourite meatballs, helping out for dinner at her eldest son’s home, and inviting herself to the privacy of her second son’s apartment.  In spite of these dedicated gestures however, her children seem to almost balk at her lack of alternative preoccupation, especially after the death of her husband. The actors are extremely invested in offering naturalistic performances, and special mention must be made of the sons (played by Feng Yuanzheng and Qin Hao), who tread a fine line between living out their own lives, yet still fulfilling their responsibility out of compassionate care for their aged mother. Their performances were not overstated and thus believable in many respects.

Mrs Deng catches a glimpse of what seems to be the elusive teenager.

I felt that the heart of the story truly lied in the tension that came along with the introduction of the teenager though. Lawless, without motivation and direction, he introduced an element of unhinged disturbance, that culminated in the slashing apart of family photographs in Mrs Deng’s home. At first, we think this is due to his own rootlessness and lack of respect for other’s boundaries. It is only later when we witness his urges to murder Mrs Deng, and uncover his background story does that act register its full significance.

The cinematography of the film featured strongly on pensive closeups of the character’s faces, apt for many scenes that strove to convey the inner thoughts of the characters, especially for Mrs Deng; since a lot of what she reflected upon were shameful reminders from a not so glorious personal history.  Many a time, the still shots on the facial expression of the vagabond teenager is one of longing. Yet he also manages to maintain an inscrutability to the motivation behind his intrusive break-ins.

This film draws from the deepest recesses of the protagonist’s (Mrs Deng) memory bank, and weighs in the harsh reality of the price she pays for protecting her family, at the expense of another. And in a cruel irony, the film shows us  that sometimes in exhibiting the best qualities of love, we unearth the worst parts of ourselves---prompted by self-preservation and survival.

Teenager (Shi Liu) and Mrs Deng (Lu Zhong)

At the end of the film, when the consequences of his actions catches up with him in a tragic way, the audience is still not given satisfaction of a closure. In leading a vagabond existence in the city and living vicariously through owners of the homes he breaks into, he achieves a transient sense of power and control over his own circumstances. Yet, the ending proves its futility and leaves a bitter tinge in our takeaway from the entire situation. Mrs Deng too, does not receive any atonement for her past actions—but at least, the answers she was looking for to the recent disturbances in her domestic life.  

Review by Isabella Ow 
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