Film Review: Hutong Days

Bottom line: A bicyclist's guide to Beijing, fatherhood, and surviving lay-offs and flatbreads.

Shanghai International Film Festival

SHANGHAI -- "Hutong Days" describes the fall and redemption of a middle-class man, who has to fend for his son in the midst of sudden penury. It is an acutely contemporary Chinese take on "The Pursuit of Happyness," in the wholesome, feel-good spirit of Capra. The film's affectionate treatment of the universal theme of fatherhood will melt the hearts of a thirty-to-fortysomething child-rearing audience. Its decent ethos and broad, non-verbal humor easily translates across cultures.

Interior designer Zhao (Xin Boqin) and his wife are saving hard to swap their obsolete but charming room among the "hutongs" (alleys) for a high-rise apartment when he loses his job and savings overnight in a company fiasco. With his wife away on training for two months, he has to care for his son while adjusting to downsized circumstances as a cake courier.

Though direction tends towards the safe and conventional side, and the philharmonic score is way too heavy, the script is competent, full of little adventures and reversals of fortune. Zhao's thriftiness, his improvisations to whet his son's appetite for cheap flatbread, his picaresque adventure to buy a birthday cake are all orchestrated with a magical touch. The romantic undercurrent between Zhao and a nanny he helps adds a wistful tone to the predictable fairytale ending.

Zhao, like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," is a character whose good heart always prevails over pragmatism. Xin invests the role with both everyman insecurities and rare integrity. Enriching the film is bevy of vividly sketched supporting roles, who seem to be plucked straight from Beijing's bustling streets and buzzing offices.

Even though it's puzzling why Zhao didn't read more classifieds for his profession before snapping up the delivery job, his experience still rings true when reflecting the precariousness of the urban bourgeois lifestyle in China's aggressive market economy. The camera follows Zhao as he peddles nimbly through the historic "hutongs," wide avenues and gleaming new urban architecture, offering a glimpse of the capital's dazzling social and architectural diversity. This bicyclist's perspective helps one experience the giddy pace of a metropolis on the move.

China Film Group Corporation/IDG Media Limited/Beijing Film Studio

Cast: Xin Boqin , Jiang Ruofeng, Dai Jiaoqian, Yan Dancheng. Director: An Zhanjun. Screenwriter: Niu Fuzhi. Producers: Han Sanping/Han Xiaoli/Hugo Shang. Directors of photography: Cai Shunan, Cheng Jie. Production designer: Wang Xiaowei. Music: Li Haiying. Costume designer: Mao Jie. Sales: China Film Group Corporation.

No rating, 102 minutes.
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