Dearest (Qin ai de)
China /Hong Kong (2014) Dir. Peter Chan
One of the worst things for a parent is to have their young child abducted from them. The emotional torment of the parents must be unimaginable but at least a full police search being conducted – unless you live in a country where the law is not so yielding.
In 2009 3 year-old PengPeng, the son of divorced couple Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) and Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo), is playing with the kids in his small urban neighbourhood in Shenzen when his mother drives off and chases after her car, but she fails to see him. PengPeng never returns home and the couple begin a frantic search for their missing son.
Three years later, PengPeng is found on a small farm in the remote village of Anhui where he has been raised by Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei) along with his younger “sister”, Yang Ji Fang. Wenjun and Xiaojuan manage to take their son back while Hongqin is sentenced to six months in prison. Upon her release Hongqin realises she has no claim on PengPeng anymore so she attempts to apply to adopt Ji Fang.
Peter Chan’s last big releases have been historical wu xia dramas The Warlords and Wu Xia (aka Dragon) so this quite a drastic change of scenery for him, but this complex and incisive indictment against the oppressive bureaucracy in modern China is a story that needs to be told. Most alarming of all, it is based on a true story.
Chan doesn’t reveal this fact – for the benefit of anyone who wasn’t already aware – until just prior to the closing credits. He does this by showing the cast watching footage of the woman who inspired the Li Honqin character, before the actors meet their real life counterparts in a brave bit of fourth wall breaking but a necessary one.
The story was a big deal in China and this film instigated another when Gao Yongxia, the woman in question, felt the fictional aspects impugned her reputation and with filmgoers visiting her farm to see her, the film initiated an invasion of her privacy. Chan was forced to apologise while star Zhao Wei effectively disowned the film.
However it still needs to be seen for a number of reasons beyond the expected stirring of emotions relating to the kidnapping. The police are stubbornly slow in launching their search for PengPeng, their officious ignorance towards the despair of the parents is borderline callous. Once it makes the news, hoax calls to Wenjun with false claims just to get the reward money become a constant issue.
After nearly three years, Wenjun and Xiajuan join a support group for parents with missing children, run by husband and wife Han Dezhong (Zhang Yi) and Fan Yun (Kitty Zhang), whose own so has been missing six years. There is something cruelly comedic about this group and their songs of support, which include a chant of “cheer up” but it offers some small respite for the suffering parents, and leads to PengPeng being found.
China’s notorious One Child Policy is a ridiculous creation and it is exposed as a flawed concept in a heartbreaking scene when, near the end, Han and Fan Yun decide 6 years is enough and upon learning Fan Yan is pregnant, have to register this with the authorities. First though they need a death certificate for their son to allow the birth of this child, and Han refuses to accept he is dead, leaving the flaccid pen pusher at a loss.
Most of the first half of the film is about the angst and trauma of PengPeng’s absence and the many near misses in getting him back. It is just before the second hour that Li Honqin is introduced and the story takes another curious direction. A simple farmer without a full education, Honqin believed everything her late husband told her – that she was infertile and he had to have a child with a surrogate in Shenzen, while Ji Yang was abandoned on a construction site.
It seems Hongqin was naive enough to believe this and she is now the nominal sympathetic character of this tale. Now out of prison and clinging to the belief Ji Yang was not abducted, Hongquin manages to secure the services of junior lawyer Gao Xia (Tong Dawei) to help with her adoption procedure – except Xiajuan has also applied for adoption to reunite Ji Yang with PengPeng.
As harrowing as the kidnapping story is, this is a tale about victims – of society, the law, the system, the greed of some, and the cruelty of others. Down the line, from PengPeng to his parents, Hongqin to Ga Xia, Han and Fan Yun to Ji Yang, everyone suffers at the hands of someone or something else. The circumstances may be different but the common denominator is the official infrastructure supposedly designed to support and protect them is corrupt.
The 123-minute run time might feel a little bloated but Chan does well to ensure we are never less than engaged throughout, despite I am sure, some cynical reactions to the demand for a shift in audience sympathies for the film’s ambiguous culprit. Similarly the ending might prove a bit melodramatic or some but I felt its bittersweet potency as a slight against patriarchal abuse.
Performances throughout are top notch and deeply effecting, with Zhao Wei hitting a career best, navigating the two difficult sides of Hongqin’s fragile personality with heartfelt credibility. Hao Lei is equally an emotional powerhouse as Xiaojuan, in contrast to Huang Bo’s dogged and resilient Wenjun and Zhang Yi’s Han Dezhong, strong for everyone else but for himself.
Dearest probably pulls a few too many punches in its critique of Chinese law, perhaps to avoid political censure, but is no less a shaming and powerful look of a cruelly flawed society, told through a difficult subject to relay without trivialising it for sentimental effect.