Over The Sea


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Over The Sea
"Li is an incredible find."

“Lying has become second nature to you,” chides Xiaojie’s sister (Li Manxuan). With a characteristic pout the boy (Yu Kunjie) responds “That’s not true. It has always been my first nature.”

Xiaojie translates literally as little lord, a term which neatly sums up the way this eight-year-old rascal sees himself, but with a slightly different inflection it’s slang for a prostitute, a connotation that hints at the instability of the boy’s situation. His parents went away when he was just three, apparently to look for work overseas, and he has been raised by his uncle, Old Sun (Sun Xinfu), who runs an inn. His sister is actually Old Sun’s daughter and, being quite a bit older, effectively acts as a mother to him, though no-one can control his behaviour. Bursting with energy and lust for life, he spends his days losing things, stealing things, carelessly breaking things, getting scruffy, messing up laundry and flowerbeds, claiming that he can outdrink everybody in the inn. He’s constantly challenging fully grown men to fights and it’s all that his family can do to keep him from getting himself into serious danger.

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Despite this, there is a studious side to Xiaojie. Woken up by his teacher at the end of class and asked if he feels up to doing the next week’s presentation, he announces with great assurance that it will be about the sea. This – and especially life under it – is his great passion. He hangs around in bookshops reading about; he has made a collage of it in his room; and at night he gazes at glowing projected images of sea creatures when he should be going to sleep. Sometimes he goes down to the beach and gazes out towards the setting sun. Is he waiting for his parents to come home?

On the radio, a newsreader discusses reports of a sea monster in the area. old Sun doles out food to a local beggar who seems to be mentally ill. The locals attribute the man’s condition to him having once seen this sea monster. It’s a bit of colourful gossip to them, but to the exuberantly imaginative boy, it’s one of the most vital pieces of information in the world.

Sun Aoqian’s exquisitely photographed first feature is full of rich colours and golden light, illuminating the world as it might be seen by a child still hooked on the heady rush of trying to absorb everything around him. Of course, Xiaojie misss a lot. He doesn’t really understand what’s going on with the men who chase Old Sun, with the accident that follows; why men talk about his sister the way they do and why her own bright smile is fading; what all the strange activity aboard the rusty old boat where he likes to play captain really means; or what harm a lie can do. There are too many distractions and it’s an effort to take it all in. When he begins to understand, to grow up and take responsibility, his smile will fade too.

Young Li is an incredible find. He’s able to switch registers in a heartbeat. His overwhelming presence makes it easy to get sucked back into the best aspects of seeing the world as a kid, but he’s equally capable of expressing emotional pain, with similarly powerful results. To him, everything is intense and immediate, and Sun reflects this in his shooting style. The script is packed with witty lines, the kid delivering his with gusto. Over The Sea is a wild ride that will carry you through crashing waves before dumping you, exhausted, on a lonely shore.

Reviewed on: 09 Mar 2020
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A cheeky, irrepressible 11-year-old racing through life with boundless energy is confronted by the harsh realities of the adult world and the tragedies that lie locked in his family history.

Director: Sun Aoqian

Writer: Jier An, Aoqian Sun

Starring: Yu Kunjie, Rebecca Li, Sun Xinfu

Year: 2019

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: China


Glasgow 2020

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