Note: our friends Chen Zhongshi and Li “Esther” Guang, producer and director of the Remi-prize-winning documentary Home of Mephibosheth, have asked Helen and me to stand in for them at the Worldfest International Film Festival here in Houston. Helen has suggested that I make notes on the movies I watch, for Zhongshi and Esther’s benefit; so here we go.
This was the second Helen-and-Kenny Date Night movie. It was also the movie in which we had the most personal interest, as our friend Dr. Feng was a major financial backer of the movie, which tells the essentially true story of how the Shandong village in which Dr. Feng grew up transformed itself into a tourist mecca.
Let’s begin with the script, which was first-class. Without committing the sin of spoiling, I can’t be very specific about why I say it was first-class, other than that at several places fairly far into the movie the dialogue casually lets drop information that causes you to seriously revise your understanding of the characters and their interrelationships. The two principle characters…ai-ya, here’s that annoying problem again…
Okay, this has been a chronic problem for me in doing these reviews of the Chinese movies from this week. The information in the Worldfest program often does not identify the character names and never tells you which actor is playing which role. Furthermore, Chinese names are rarely gender-specific, which means when you are looking at a cast list you don’t know which names are actors’ and which are actresses’. And finally, even after seven years of hearing Chinese names I still have a terrible time remembering them, especially since at least half the time when Chinese people are talking to each other they don’t use names at all, preferring to use family relationships instead: when Helen is speaking Chinese, I am never “Kenny” but always “Xiansheng” or “Laogong,” both of which mean “husband.” I have no idea what one of Helen’s uncle’s name is, because for the past seven years I have never once called him anything but “Sangubaba,” which is to say, “husband of my wife’s father’s third-eldest sister.” When I tried to remember the name of Fan Meisuo’s love interest in Teacher in the Deep Mountains, the only dialogue that had stuck in my mind was her younger sister’s — in which she always called her “Jie,” which is to say, “Big Sister.” That was unhelpful.
So, the two main characters in this movie are the town’s retired elder statesman who comes up with the idea of turning the village into a tourist destination, and his daughter whose name I think was something like Haiying. Of the elder statesman’s name I have no memory at all. This is purely because 我是美国的傻瓜, I am an American moron. — No, wait, after posting this, while re-reading it, I have just suddenly gotten the sick feeling that Haiying is actually the name of the Elder Statesman. [utters very non-Baptist words] So I will have to refer to them as Elder Statesman and
Haiying Daughter, who I am guessing are played by Zhang Shutian and Xu Ge respectively.
The script requires Zhang to make us like and respect Elder Statesman at first, but to come to realize during the course of the film that he has initially unsuspected flaws to be overcome. With Daughter, Xu has to produce the opposite effect: my reaction to her behavior early in the film was, “Good Lord, I can totally understand why her husband has headed off to the other side of the world and never come back — this girl is really cute, but God help anybody who has to live with her.” That opinion too, like our opinion of Elder Statesman, has to be modified, but in Daughter’s case it becomes more positive. Don’t get me wrong, I personally still would pass unhesitatingly on any invitation to get romantically involved with her, no matter how cute she is, as I personally do not find occasional fights to be spicifying enlivenments of marital monotony. But the point is that she does become ever more likeable as you get to know her ever better, and you do get to the point where you can at least see why Daughter’s Love Interest could be happy with her even if persons of a less supernaturally saintly degree of patience would not be, which is all that is necessary to make the ending a happy one. Put it this way: to begin with Xu successfully makes Daughter’s first impression on us be “Crazy Bitch;” but by the end of the movie Xu has convinced us that, actually, Daughter is merely Italian.
Fortunately, both Zhang and Xu are up to their respective tasks. The still-handsome Zhang, with his most-interesting-man-in-the-world grey-flecked beard and his natural gravitas, was born to play dignified older men; and Xu is both as cute as you could ask a leading-lady village girl to be and also…well, if she isn’t a hot-tempered short-fused little firecracker in real life, then she has spent plenty of time around temper-tantrum-throwing ladies and has taken copious notes, both on how they blow up at a moment’s notice and how they are sincerely repentant once they have calmed back down. Either that or she grew up in Italy.
The supporting actors are up to their tasks, as well. I don’t expect any Academy Awards to be coming their way anytime soon, but the script doesn’t demand acting genius. It does require that the comic relief characters be funny, and they are, in a slightly over-the-top slapstick way that works perfectly well for the movie. Since Elder Statesman’s idea is to turn half the family homes in the village into bed-and-breakfasts; and since other than Elder Statesman himself the villagers have no more idea of how to run bed-and-breakfasts than they have of how to fly dirigibles; and since Elder Statesman’s idea of training is to advertise for customers on the internet, send them to a villager’s house when they show up, and say, “Good luck”…well, the early efforts to establish the village as a tourist haven are amusingly catastrophic, and the catastrophes are played for laughs in a way that successfully got me laughing. (It will be a long time before I forget Daughter’s double-sided-windmill method of throwing what she believes to be punches in a brawl over which family stole which other family’s customers, or the sight of Daughter’s BFF dancing around the dining room table in an ad-hoc and amateurish, but endearingly sincere, attempt to provide entertainment suitable for an American couple’s fortieth wedding anniversary.)
Daughter’s Love Interest is not meant as a comic character, and that’s a good thing since the only time I remember him trying to be funny (in the opening gossiping-ladies scene that introduces him to us), he, um, isn’t. Fortunately, after that, the script doesn’t ask him to try to be funny again. Now, the actor doesn’t really have the personal magnetism he needs for the first half of the movie, but since what his character offers Daughter is primarily gentleness and calmness and compassion and an unusually high capacity for absorbing unkind treatment from occasionally hot-tempered people (such as, you know, both Daughter and her father), the lack of leading-man personal magnetism is not as crippling as it would be in most romantic comedies. And this compassion and gentleness and imperturbability the actor does project effectively; so while during the first half of the movie we aren’t sure what Daughter sees in him, we do figure it out eventually. It would have worked better if he could have come off in the first half as a bad boy but a sexy one, and then to have been revealed to have been the good boy in disguise that we knew all along he would turn out to be (since this is, after all, a romcom). But it still works well enough as it is.
Meanwhile the village itself is a character, and an effective one; I heard at least one audience member asking after the show where the village was and how hard it would be to visit such a beautiful place. The directing is very good, and attention has been paid to details, thank heaven. The actors, for example, came to the village early and stayed there for a couple of months before shooting began in order to get the local accent right — and that accent is distinctive; even my shǎguā American self could tell they were not pronouncing their words in conformity with the rules of pinyin. And for once we had lovely, accurate, idiomatically expressive English subtitles. I complimented the director on the subtitles after the show…and it turns out the translator is an American who has lived in China for a long time and is now fluent in Mandarin as well as being a native English speaker, which explains it. I wish he had used a phrase like “country vacation” rather than the non-English “farm stay,” especially since at no time in the movie does anybody stay at, or even lay eyes on, a farm. And I was deeply confused at one point when one character said to the other — according to the subtitles, at least — “You are an ungrateful son!” leading me to ask Helen later in some confusion, “Wait, was that guy really the Elder Statesman’s son?” Helen, who wasn’t reading the subtitles, didn’t remember the Elder Statesman’s having said anything like that; so maybe that was an error in subtitling as well, or maybe the Elder Statesman just knew the guy’s father and assumed the right to speak on said father’s behalf. But other than that, so far as I could tell, the subtitles were perfect.
All in all, of the five Chinese movies I saw at Worldfest, four of which I really liked, this was the one I enjoyed the most. Perhaps someday Dr. Feng and I will both be in China at the same time; if so, I would be delighted to meet him for a few days in his pretty little fishing village. If not, I certainly hope to watch A Pretty Little Fishing Village again, and am curious to see what other movies Zhang Shutian and Xu Ge have appeared in. This film goes straight into my library once there is a DVD available.
UPDATE: I am informed, by Dr. Feng’s niece Maggie, that Haiying is Daughter’s name, after all; the reason I was confused is that most people call her father “Lao Hai,” which is essentially an affectionate way to address an older person…something like “Uncle Hai.” I’m not going to go back and rewrite the post now, though.
Earlier Worldfest 2018 posts
I mislead some nice Chinese girls
Worldfest low-budget review: Blaze (USA)
Worldfest low-budget review: Nine to Nirvana (China, Best Foreign Film co-winner and I will tell you in advance that this means the jury and I are very far from being on the same page about what makes a movie good or bad)
Congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光…
General observation on the Chinese movies at Worldfest
Worldfest low-budget review: Ayla, the Daughter of War (Turkey, screened but not eligible for an award)
Again, congratulations to 陈忠师 and 黎光… Platinum Remi!
Worldfest low-budget review: Fiddlin’ (USA, Grand Remi winner I think)
Worldfest low-budget review: Hidden Summer (Houston/China, Silver Remi winner)
Worldfest low-budget review: Grass Ring (China, Gold Remi winner, featuring Ma Liang, winner of the festival’s Best Supporting Actor award)
Worldfest low-budget review: Teacher in the Deep Mountains (China, Platinum Remi winner I think)
Later Worldfest 2018 posts:
Worldfest low-budget review: Santa Stole Our Dog (USA…where else?)
Worldfest low-budget review: Home of Mephibosheth (China, Platinum Remi winner)