After several days of festival movies filled with storytelling gimmicks and dazzling displays of artistic virtuosity, I was utterly unprepared late on my fifth day at VIFF for the hyper-mellowness of Song Fang’s debut film about visiting her family as an unmarried adult. It’s a fuzzy blanket of a movie, a fuzzy blanket of death. You’ll recognize Song as the Chinese student in Paris in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, and she plays herself here beside her real-life parents as they discuss mundane family events and history in dialogue that is largely scripted but feels improvised. The movie is thus a lot like a Liu Jiayin film, but where Liu foregrounds her formal playfulness Song seems to be trying to erase any sense of artificiality from her filmmaking. Her takes are long but not ostentatiously so and in some scenes she even uses traditional analytical editing where the demands of minimalism would require a long take. She cuts axially out of and into a frame and sometimes the camera moves, but never for its own sake. Much of the film is confined to a single set, her parents’ apartment, and Song uses different set-ups in the same locations to give a sense of variety to what could otherwise be a very static, boring space.
The plot is structured around a series of conversations between Song, her parents, her brother and an aunt and uncle. The conversations invariably turn out to be roundabout ways of nagging Song to answer one simple question, finally posed halfway through the film: “How long will you go on living alone?” There’s a cautionary tale about a great uncle who remained single and ending up staying up all night and sleeping all day, a long talk about taking care of a family friend sick with cancer, long shots of family members cutting each other’s finger nails and so on. It’s a question Song is clearly asking herself: the more she stays, the more nostalgic she gets for her youth, when she lived at home and had people to take care of and who would take care of her. Family as a bulwark against the solitude of death.
The high point in the film is when Song’s brother comes to visit and promptly falls asleep. Soon, everyone else is napping too. I love when people take naps in movies (see for example, Chungking Express) and this has got to be the purest depiction of the joys of the warm afternoon nap ever committed to film. But as Song watches her parents sleeping, first her father, alone in closeup, then her mother bedside him, the film’s melancholy heart breaks.