I keep on coming back to one particular word when describing the 2014 mainland drama Dearest — and that word is unsettling. There’s also a subversive thread running through this movie which subtly but resolutely questions the ability of China’s government to comprehend and to act on very complicated legal and emotional issues. Dearest is about child-stealing and is based on a case which caught the public’s attention in 2009.
The film’s director, Peter Chan, is one of a small group of Hong Kong film-makers who has successfully made the transition to the mainland film industry. His recent movies have been slick commercial dramas and action pics which have done big business at China’s box-office. With two prominent stars, Zhao Wei and Huang Bo, Dearest was greenlit with minimal government interference. The film did well in China but has received hardly any international distribution.
Chan’s new film opens in a crowded and busy Shenzhen, where divorced couple Tian Wen-Jun (Huang Bo) and Lu Xiao-Juan (Hao Lei) are bickering over the custody of their young son Peng Peng. On returning from a visit to his mother, Peng Peng joins friends on a trip to a nearby skate park. It’s here he is distracted by a seemingly familiar sight and — in a split second — he is literally plucked from the street.
For the next three years, Tian and Lu live a waking nightmare as they search for their son. Initially, the media is helpful and publicise the parents’ plight. A reward is offered by Tian for Peng Peng’s return; the criminal and the desperate prey upon this largesse. It has become an ordeal with no end in sight: Lu is suffering serious psychological problems and Tian is nearly killed by extortionists when he is lured to Hebei. But as Tian tells close friends: “Hope is like food, without it you die.” Unsettling… very unsettling.
In 2012, Tian is contacted by a villager in Northeast China who claims to know where the child is, and he is not seeking money for this information. As this sequence plays out, there is a near palpable feel that Peng Peng is alive. I won’t give too much away here because this passage of Dearest is edge-of-your-seat stuff, as a child is rescued from a remote village in An Hui province. Lu and Tian are chased by enraged villagers wielding pikes and scythes, in images which summon to mind the mob hysteria of the Middle Ages. Leading the charge is a woman distraught at seeing her son kidnapped. It’s here that we first meet the illiterate farm widow Li Hong Qin, played by Zhao Wei.
Chan allows the audience some respite as Li Hong Qin is arrested and charged with child stealing. At the police station, an innocent question to a young girl throws the viewer into a world where time seems to have stopped — rural China. It now appears that Li’s daughter, Yi Qing, was also stolen by her late husband. The point is never laboured upon but Dearest is quite damning in its depiction of a nation which allows such a gulf to exist between its city and country populations.
At the film’s halfway point, Li is being released from jail and begins searching for her daughter who has been sent to a Shenzhen orphanage. Zhao Wei’s Li now becomes the central character as she shuffles through Shenzhen clutching a bag of specially-picked fruit as payment to the lawyer she is set to retain to free Yi Qing from the government institution.
The plotting might sound basic and far-fetched, but this could well be the best screen drama you will see this year.
Chan and his writer Zhang Ji (American Dreams in China) don’t sugar coat the fact that China’s legal system is all but morphing into a Western-style one where money talks loudest, and for the general population access to Rule-of-Law is limited by resources and personnel. Mainland star Tong Dawei (Hollywood Adventures) appears as the lawyer who finally takes on Li’s case against the government.
“Oh yeah! Big Eyes (Zhao Wei) gets all the publicity! But it’s Huang Bo who is the best actor in that film — for sure!” This somewhat partisan comment is from a Chinese DVD seller I know quite well. At first, I tended to agree with her, but on a second viewing of the movie I now think both performances are just superb. This is summed up so poignantly in a scene where Li approaches Tian outside his house one night and we are painfully reminded of the slippery moral netherworld which we all inhabit.
Dearest never over-reaches dramatically or stylistically and it’s this low-key approach which makes the film so powerful and memorable. On the surface everything seems so normal and contained, but it’s the unseen undercurrents of life which are driving this narrative.
On a slightly different note, the best moments of the film’s music are directly lifted from Peter Chan’s 1996 award-winning HK pic Comrades, Almost a Love Story.
The film closes with TV coverage of the original story. Initially, I found this to be overly sentimental and oddly out-of-place considering how the rest of the movie had so carefully avoided such mawkishness. But then it all fell into place, as I watched director Chan give us a contrived media conclusion — a happy ending. Anyone seeing this film will understand well that the serious issues raised aren’t conducive to emotional warmth or family happiness. And, as for the main characters in Dearest, it will be no surprise that nothing is completely resolved. Instead, different paths are taken, attitudes are modified, and there are no absolute villains or heroes — this film is steeped in the quandary of life.
Some Notes on Peter Chan…
For such a talented film-maker it’s disappointing to find out that Peter Chan is virtually unknown to Western cinema-goers.
Peter Ho-Sun Chan was born in 1962 in Thailand to Thai-Chinese parents who later moved to Hong Kong, where Chan spent his formative years. In his late teens the family then migrated to America, which enabled Chan to enroll at UCLA where he studied film-making. In the early 1980s, Chan returned to Hong Kong and began work in the Cantonese film industry. Writing, acting, producing — he was hungry for experience and credits. In the mid-80s, he worked as an assistant director / translator on the John Woo mercenary pic Heroes Shed No Tears, which was filmed in Thailand.
In 1991, Peter Chan was a founding partner (along with actor Eric Tsang and writer Lee Chi-Ngai) of the production company United Filmmakers Organisation, which began producing quality films for a younger, more Westernised Hong Kong audience. UFO Ltd also attracted movie-making talent by doubling the usual production period of a film to four weeks — a move unheard of at the time!For the next five years UFO releases had the Midas touch at the Hong Kong box-office. Titles such as the gender-bending comedy He’s a Woman, She’s a Man, the devilish satire of Heaven Can’t Wait and the ultra-creepy thriller The Returning transformed the Canto film industry. The company’s output, commercially and artistically, peaked in 1996 with the immigrant drama Comrades, Almost a Love Story, featuring Maggie Cheung and directed by Peter Chan, and Lost and Found, a most beautifully rendered romantic fantasy starring songstress Kelly Chan and Takeshi Kaneshiro, which was helmed by Lee Chi-Ngai.
After a short stint in Hollywood, Chan arrived back in Hong Kong in the early 2000s. It was here where he now saw China as being the future hub of Asian film-making. Contacts were sought, contracts were signed and films were made.
Starting in 2009, Chan oversaw a slate of new genre films which were to become star performers at the mainland box-office. The titles included the faux historical action-drama Bodyguards and Assassins, Donnie Yen’s kung-fu murder-mystery Wuxia (aka Dragon) and the recent feel-good movie fable American Dreams in China. Through his new production company We Pictures, Chan was the driving force behind these films being produced and distributed. At the same time, he was also forging business links with non-film-making entities such as the Alibaba online group, which was one of the investors behind Dearest. His commercial and film-making partner in We Pictures is veteran mainland director Huang Jianxin (Back to Back, Face to Face) who appears in Dearest as the head of a Shenzhen orphanage.
Peter Chan’s long time partner is Hong Kong actor-comedienne Sandra Ng (Golden Chicken). Both are residents of Hong Kong but spend much of the year working in China.
Chan’s latest film via We Pictures is a biopic about the Chinese tennis ace, Li Na. The picture is currently in pre-production.
Oh, and for this film, Dearest: