Back To The North

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Back To The North
"Hao certainly has an eye for a strong image, using the starkness of black and white photography to emphasise light and shade, hot and cold."

Li Hao wears his influences on his sleeve in his debut Back To The North - but what a collection of influences they are, from the French nouvelle vague to Jia Zhangke and even Wong Kar Wai - if you're going to borrow, you may as well do so from the best.

Fortunately, amid the restless echoes of other filmmakers there is quite a lot to suggest Hao is likely to go on to make other, better and more strongly authored films of his own. He certainly has an eye for a strong image, using the starkness of black and white photography to emphasise light and shade, hot and cold.

His film contemplates what it means for Chinese families restricted by the one-child policy if they lose their only offspring. Since the instigation of the policy, around a third of parents have just one child and the China National Committee on Ageing estimates around a million couples have become 'lost families' due to being left childless following the death of their only child, a figure estimated to be rising at a rate of around 76,000 each year.

This then, forms the backdrop of Hao's narrative but it remains first and foremost an examination of tension between the generations and of family stresses and ties.

Nan Sheng plays Xiao Ai, a young woman on the brink of making her own way in the world, about to take up a job in a factory and blossoming into adulthood. But she is keeping a secret from her parents - while they, in turn, are keeping one from her. This notion of hidden ideas runs throughout the film, suggesting a society where secrets are meant to be kept not revealed.

Xiao's problem is her health but despite what may lie ahead for her, it is her parents' fate she is most concerned about. With a prospect of possibly dying before they do, she urges them to have a second child – something now permitted for parents who themselves are also only children. The problem for her mum Liu Qing (Su Yijuan) and dad Ai Liang (Ran Weiqun) is that their relationships is on the rocks, the pair of them going through the motions for the sake of their daughter and keeping up appearances on the rare occasions when he is home from his industrial job in another part of the country. The question is what lengths the parents will go to because of their love of their child.

The nouvelle vague trappings employed by Hao – in particular voice-overs from Ai – are the least successful of his magpie borrowings. He achieves much more in his Jia-style evocation of the changing landscape of China, contrasting the industrial workplace of Liang and factory floor were Xiao works with the more natural environs of the river, or Xiao's regular bus trip, when she gazes out at miles of telephone wires. He also does a sterling job of showing the influence of one generation on the next, particularly in a touching scene which shows the thawing of relations between Qing and her own mother.

Though much is made of impermanence, Hao maintains a sense of looping flow, from repeated images of the river to a song that reappears throughout the film's soundtrack to such an extent that, by the end, the audience member in front of me at the recent San Sebastian Film Festival had started to sing along. The film would benefit from a cut, particularly in its early stages – and the repeated music idea does become laboured but Hao's emotional groundwork is strong and his conclusion sweetly poignant.

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2015
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When a young woman discovers she isn't well, she tries to persuade her parents to have another baby.

Director: Liu Hao

Writer: Liu Hao

Starring: Luo Xiaoyi, Nan Sheng, Su Yijuan

Year: 2015

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: China

Festivals:

SSFF 2015

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