A Dog Barking At The Moon


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Dog Barking At The Moon
"Lisa Zi Xiang's astutely written début uses the familiar formula of a multi-generation family saga as a launchpad for thematic and structural experiment." | Photo: Acorn Films

Homosexuality is a complicated issue in China. Although there's plenty of evidence of gay people living openly there is the past, there's also evidence of prejudice going back a long way, coalescing in the mid 19th Century partly due to influence from the West. Today attitudes are once again beginning to relax and the state - though it does little to provide official recognition for lesbian, gay or bisexual people - encourages tolerance and respect. As so often, however, there is a cultural lag created by a combination of adherence to perceived tradition and worry about what the neighbours might say.

"Gossips can destroy you," Li Jiumei (Renhua Na) warns her daughter Huang Xiaoyu (Gaowa Siqin), who doesn't understand why the taboo remains so strong. Xiaoyu herself has broken another taboo, marrying a foreigner (Thomas Fiquet), which may have changed her perspective, but she has never fitted well into the traditional role her parents cast her in. This has been an ongoing source of familial tension. Its comparative importance recedes, however, after Jiumei learns that her husband is having an affair with a man.

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Lisa Zi Xiang's astutely written début uses the familiar formula of a multi-generation family saga as a launchpad for thematic and structural experiment. Her story does not unfold in chronological order but the scenes as presented to us become increasingly abstracted over time, some taking place on an empty sound stage with family members positioned as if travelling in a car. It is as if the breakdown of established social norms is contributing to a breakdown in cinema itself. The devastating confession that ultimately brings events full circle is heralded by a scene at a local beauty spot framed like so many in classic Chinese cinema which relied on painted backdrops rather than taking in the imperfections of the real world.

One of the reasons why homosexuality has never been fully accepted in Chinese culture is the central importance given to family and the maintenance of one's lineage, a notion to which Jiumei has dedicated her life, trying to preserve honour and respectability at any cost. Alongside this wilful commitment she has a set of stubbornly unexamined assumptions about the way things ought to be. The equally tough Xiaoyu continually runs up against this refusal to engage but, in her youthful anger, fails to question the reason for its existence. The family resides in a spacious home and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle, and like most young people raised that way, she take it for granted, failing to understand that her parents' lives might have been different.

Although the film is weighted with tragedy, there is also a comic aspect to proceedings, from the pointed dialogue at the dinner table to Jiumei's increasingly desperate attempts to find a cure for what she is convinced must be a mental illness afflicting her husband. Buying a dog to provide him with a new emotional focus is one thing. Joining a cult is another, and Xiaoyu despairs as she discovers that promising enlightenment in exchange for cash is not actually something the law can intervene in. There's a bittersweet quality to these episodes which also function as social satire and point up the ultimate absurdity inherent in failing to acknowledge the world as it is.

Deliberately theatrical, A Dog Barking At The Moon is a film about performance and the efforts we all make to believe that the roles we play have meaning. It's a slow but carefully measured piece of work which builds to a powerful conclusion.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2019
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A Chinese family saga, told in different periods of time, commencing with the wife’s discovery of her husband’s homosexuality.

Director: Lisa Zi Xiang

Writer: Lisa Zi Xiang

Starring: Naren Hua, Nan Ji, Naren Hua, Nan Ji

Year: 2019

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: China, Spain

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