It is rare for a director having been successful with two commercial comedies, “Jian Bing Man” (2015) and “City of Rock” (2017), to turn his focus to the art-house genre. Actually, “The Reunions” was conceived in 2016 and filming was finished in January 2017, even before his “City of Rock” hit the screens in September 2017.
However, when Da Peng, also known as Dong Chengpeng, combed through all the materials his crew had shot, various intimate moments pained him. It took years in the editing room for him to come to terms with this and finish the work.
The Chinese director experimented with his new film’s possibilities based on his own personal story about life in his extended family in a rural village in northeastern China, making a feature film by using a documentary film approach, a rare format unfamiliar to many Chinese people.
The film documents how he goes back to his rural hometown in Northeast China with a pure idea to shoot an art-house film about a family reunion during the Spring Festival, especially about his grandmother. “I wanted to show how she gets up in the morning, and prepares for the family reunion later in the day and so on,” Da Peng said, mentioning the film was originally called “The Grandma.”
Then he has to face a series of unexpected twists and turns, such as the sudden death of his grandma, a family meeting to discuss how to deal with his brain-damaged uncle, and the quarrels that erupted among his family members.
“The Reunions” is a two-part film with a bold structure: The first part “The Reunion” is a short pseudo-documentary about a girl going back to her hometown to get back together with her alienated father and family after a decade of absence; the second part “The Final Reunion” is a documentary about how Da Peng directed the pseudo-documentary and his emotional moments and interactions with family members. The two parts mirror each other in an organic whole.
The film is so real, as almost all the figures in it are real and ordinary people, and were performing things naturally without being coached or scripted. Da Peng had no script either and no intention to intervene, but wanted to film what happened just as it really happened. In his own words, “This time I want to record everything by God’s will.”
Except for one: Liu Lu, the only actress placed by Da Peng in the film to help finish the production. She was so dedicated and immersed herself in the role, as if she was a real family member. Sometimes she could not even get out of it.
“I tried my best,” Liu said at the premiere.
Liu played Da Peng’s cousin, Wang Qingli, whose father was brain-damaged. Her mother decided to divorce him and take the girl with her to live in a big city. She tried to repair her relationship with her father later, but was still out of the town for nearly a decade during which she built her own family in the city. Da Peng thought she would never return, so he brought in Liu, the actress, as substitute.
However, during the filming process, to Da Peng’s surprise, his cousin arrived. Whenever Liu Lu played her, she was watching, behind the monitor with Da Peng. This created a dramatic scene: When a real family quarrel broke out, Liu ran out of door, then sat in another room trying to calm herself; at the same time, Wang Qingli was sitting beside her, checking her mobile phone, as if the family wrangle was none of her business.
But Da Peng later defended his cousin, saying Wang, who has her own family to raise and cannot afford to take care of her father, was helpless and just wanted to escape from the awkward moment triggered by the quarrel on the issue of which family member should continue to assume the burden of caring for the brain-damaged uncle after the grandmother died.
He described the family relationship as something “that can withstand wrangles and can quickly reunite. It is a flexible relationship that is woven together through various difficulties and trials.”
“The Reunions,” which will hit theaters on Friday, received rave reviews from critics and the audience. On Douban.com, Chinese review platform, it received a high score of 8.4/10, and it was also among the 2020 Shanghai International Film Festival’s Golden Goblet Award Official Selection.
Da Peng’s family story is also epitome of an aging society in China. According to a release by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in October 2020, the number of people over the age of 60 in China is set to surpass 300 million during the period of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25). The issues of an aging population, and elderly empty nesters (old people without children with no-one to take care of them at home) have become more and more serious. According to iiMedia Research, there are currently 120 million empty nesters in the country.
The film gives out no clear answer, but has made people think.
Outside the film, Da Peng said that his producer and himself, whose “Jian Bing Man” alone made 1.16 billion yuan ($179 million) at the box office, once offered to take care of all the costs and put his uncle in a good nursing home after finished filming “The Reunions,” but not a single family member agreed.
“They can heatedly debate who should take care of him, but they don’t want to put him into a nursing home. Now, my uncle’s four siblings are taking care of him one by one in turn, just like their mother had once done. They are good now, they are quite good,” he said.
Source: china org by Zhang Rui
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