by Jason Suzuki
Peter Chan's Dearest is a well made kidnapping drama with ambitious ideas yet it never allows itself to go beyond the surface, instead finding comfort in portraying everyone involved as victim (to be fair some of this surface level business has the SAPPRFT's names written all over it). While it's a humanistic take to avoid treating anyone like a villain, the film doesn't know how to properly execute the conceit. The problem is the film is right off the bat so well-made and thoroughly effective that when it gives itself the immense challenge of sympathy for all, it can't succeed, which it seems like the film halfheartedly pursued anyways in its jumbled second half. Yet despite a complete mess of an ending, which mixes abrupt inconclusiveness with footage of the actors meeting the real people from the kidnapping case the film is based on, the majority of the film is able to portray complex emotions and ideas without ever having to resort to sentimentality.
The first half of the film follows a divorced couple and their search for their kidnapped child. Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo) and his ex-wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) who has remarried, each take to the kidnapping of their son Pengpeng in different ways. Wenjun devoting all his time to following every lead he can, pretty much all of them from people who see his vulnerability as an easy target to scam. Xiaojuan retreating into herself, straining her marriage. Once the false reports have died down, Wenjun invites Xiaojuan to a support group for parents of kidnapped children lead by Han (Zhang Yi) and his wife (Kitty Zhang). The main motto of the group, which is sadly rather large, is to not give up the search for the children. When Xiaojuan breaks down at her first meeting, the groups breaks into their chant and clap "cheer up" mantra. Both humor and sympathy is derived from this moment, and is one of the strongest elements Peter Chan is able to contribute to the story: the way to combine the absurd, almost Sysyphysean task of finding one's child, and an understanding of the unbearable pain that goes along with the search, the impossibility nagging at the back of the parents' minds.
This goes on for three years until they get the lead that actually takes them to their son. At a rural slum, Pengpeng has now identified with the woman who has been raising him and in effect Wenjun and Xiaojuan must kidnap him, to the kid's dismay, the new mother's dismay, and that of the townsfolk who chase them down. The police arrive in time to prove the kid is Pengpeng and from here the film will drastically change in thematic scope and unfortunately quality.
Once we get to that halfway point and Pengpeng is back home, Dearest broadens its scope to include other characters to the point where interesting ideas can only be brought up and not satisfactorily explored. Pengpeng has now come to think of the woman who raised him for the past three years his mom. Li Hongqin (Vicki Zhao) claims she didn't know the boy was kidnapped, that being unable to have a child her husband went to Shenzhen, had a child with another woman, and brought him back to her. It's a shaky story which the film never wants to choose a side on regarding her knowledge of where Pengpeng came from. The only certainty is that the girl she has raised as her daughter was abandoned at a construction site. The truth of the abandonment is contested as Li Hongqin needs to prove it if she is to attempt to get custody of the girl, but due to the one child policy, in which boys are favored over girls who thus abandoned, it is one of the only stances the film takes, but never so explicitly.
The film's shift in focus to Li Hongqin is not fully committed and will leave you wondering why do it in the first place, especially when you see how much more can be explored and developed within the support group. One of the most powerful moments is when Han and his wife are applying for permission to have another child. In order to receive the permission they must claim that their first son is dead. To do so would be to admit all hope of ever seeing their son again is lost. It's an incredible dilemma, and is the best connecting episode featured in the second half. It's a complex look at the one child policy, going deep into the human element of such a policy. The film for the last hour will alternate between Li Hongqin, Wenjun and Xiaojuan, the young civil servant who decides to help Li Hongqin, and Han, whose hope begins to drain once PengPeng is found, the only success story among the group.
Much has been made about Vicki Zhao's portrayal of Li Hongqin, her first acting role since she made her directorial debut with So Young in 2013. Consistently winning best actress awards, Zhao certainly is given an immense task of winning us over from the people we have spent the last hour with, especially being a part of the misery of those people. The film's insistence on never fully confirming her ignorance of Pengpeng's kidnapping does not help. Given these structural shortcomings Zhao does do a fantastic job but so does everyone else in the film, who are given just as complex situations to portray. Hao Lei in particular has certainly been overlooked. A scene where her returned son finally holds her hand sticks to the mind, Peter Chan wisely keeping the camera on Hao Lei, who conveys one of the only moments of relief and joy found in the film.
The film's shortcomings is a coin with two sides. On the one hand it presents this situation as complex, and with much larger implications to societal constraints rather than the evil of an individual. Yet on the other hand it feels incomplete, the inclusion of the real life people is handled so awkwardly that it distracts from any sort of message of forgiveness and walking through others' shoes. Dearest is still a very good film, the conflict it inspires in the viewer reason to check it out.
Dearest plays Wednesday, November 11, 3:30 pm; Sie FilmCenter; Saturday, November 14, 6:15 pm; Sunday, November 15, 6:30 pm; UA Pavilions.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.