Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The writer/director's style asks us to focus less on what is being said than on the general interaction between family members." | Photo: Courtesy of Venice Days

In one sense very little happens at all in Li Dongmei's Chinese rural drama Mama, which observes a family over the course of seven days in languorous takes that capture the quotidian quietude of their existence. But the milestones of existence are all contained in this attractive slice of slow cinema, including birth, marriage and death.

Set in the Nineties, there's a timeless quality to the family's lives which, aside from technological advancements like the telephone, seem much likey they probably were a decade or two before. We watch as 12-year-old Xiaoxian (Ge Wendan) helps out at home or in the fields in between heading to school, usually with her younger sister in tow.

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Li takes her time, with her cinematographers Shen Xiaomin and Zhang Yalong's cameras often watching characters walk from one place to another, which gives both a sense of the verdant landscape of rural China and also the sheer space the village occupies. The decision to use only ambient sound also adds to the film's immersive quality. When emergencies occur, the same terrain must be travelled, with only so much speed possible. This is a film structured around emotion rather than dialogue, with typical exchanges including "Are you feeding the chickens?" "Yes, I'm feeding the chickens" but it gathers weight as it goes. Beyond the rural environment, there's a sense of 'the other China' - the place where Xiaoxian's father (Wang Xiaoping), initially no more than a voice on a phone, is working while her heavily pregnant mum (Cheng Shuqiong) runs the household.

The writer/director's style asks us to focus less on what is being said than on the general interaction between family members, particularly during the shared mealtimes which punctuate each evening, the family comfortable in the company of one another, their small talk minimal. She has a good eye for the different attitudes of adults and children, particularly when it comes to concepts like grief, showing how a funeral and its aftermath affect the generations in very different ways.

Each room of the home of this extended family - which includes grandma and grandad - could almost be a still life, a faded cat drawing on the wall here, a sheaf of corn cobs there. Li drew on her own childhood memories and loss as the backbone for her feature debut and her connection to the material shines through at key moments of love and grief.

Reviewed on: 15 Sep 2020
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Seven days in the life of a family in rural China.

Director: Li Dongmei

Writer: Li Dongmei

Starring: Ge Wendan, Cheng Shuqiong, Wang Xiaoping, Xiao Guoli, Gong Yanxin

Year: 2020

Runtime: 133 minutes

Country: China


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