'The Donor': Film Review | Busan 2016
Former Zhang Yimou assistant Zang Qiwu makes his debut with timely hot-button drama ‘The Donor’.
Second perhaps only to baby trafficking as a headline generator, organ sales—usually for grotesque mercenary reasons—have become big news in China, and Zang Qiwu uses that as his jumping-off point for a meditation on class, power and abuse in his debut feature, The Donor. Pivoting on a middle-aged man’s deal to sell a kidney to an affluent man that goes horribly wrong, The Donor would almost feel like satire if the gap between rich and poor in China weren’t so glaring, if people weren’t so willing to go to extremes to beat a system rigged against them and if human life hadn’t been reduced to a commodity to be bartered and sold.
With its gray, urban-grim aesthetic and soulless, ambient “soundtrack” (the trains rumbling by on the tracks above our hero signal the times are changing for better or worse), The Donor makes it clear we are far, far away from the funky-cool hutongs of Beijing or the glittering towers of Shanghai. This is the modern China gripped by economic sluggishness and social uncertainty—a space where at any minute the poor can be forced from their modest homes to make way for luxury housing. Commercial prospects for the film beyond Asia could be thin but the currency of the material and mythic horror surrounding organ sales should give the film a long life on the festival circuit.
The Donor begins by introducing Yang Ba (Ni Dahong), a motorbike repair shop owner barely making ends meet with a nagging (always) wife and a disinterested son, Bao, getting ready for highly competitive university entrance exams. Deciding he is going to put his boy through school somehow, Yang agrees to sell one of his kidneys to Li Daguo (Qi Dao). Daguo has a sister, Xiaohui, in renal failure, and he pays Yang RMB300,000 (about US$45,000) for his. But Yang is an older gentleman, and Xiaohui rejects the organ, leading Daguo to suggest Bao supply the next kidney. Yang vehemently opposes the deal, but Bao agrees, arguing he’ll get much more for his youthful organ. The whole mess leads Yang to radical action.
With his hangdog, world-weary face Ni is suitably rumpled and defeated as Yang, just as Qi is spit shined and handsome, perfectly dressed every time he appears. Credit writers Qin Haiyan and LI Xiaobing for avoiding the pitfalls of making Li a stereotypical bad guy, one reprehensible enough to make you root against him. Li is less evil or cruel as he is blind to his own arrogance and entitlement. He has money and power and sees no reason not to get what he wants. Similarly, Bao calls out his father for own double standards and is equally determined, perhaps more so, to get what he wants. But precisely because everyone is so reasonable there’s no room for fury or indignation that should go with trafficking in humanity, whole or in part.
Zang obviously learned from one of the best, and he demonstrates an assured, steady hand with material that could easily tip into an abyss of histrionics, but that doesn’t exempt him from missteps that make an otherwise engaging film wobble on its foundations. For every affecting, isolating image (Hua is often heard and not seen) and camera work, there is a pause that’s just a little too pregnant, providing only a modicum of dramatic punch but plenty of internal queries of “Is this scene over now?” The slow build that compels Yang to finally express genuine emotion occasionally plays like amateur theater; meticulous pacing comes off as painfully slow.
Technical specs on what is likely a modest budget are very strong, chiefly sound designer Li Danfeng’s atmospheric mix that manages to make wind, traffic and squealing tracks effortlessly lay the groundwork for both story and space, and production design by Zhang Jietao, who provides a palpable sense of disadvantage.
Production company: Beijing Jing Yue Century Media, Gang Tai Pictures, Beijing Xin Jun Culture Media
Cast: Ni Dahong, Qi Dao, Zhang Han, Zhang Chen, Li Zhen
Director: Zang Qiwu
Screenwriter: Qin Haiyan, LI Xiaobing
Producer: Wang Geng, Yang Xuetao, Zhao Ruijun, Xu Jiangang.
Director of photography: Dong Jinsong
Production designer: Zhang Jietao
Editor: Liao Qingsong
World sales: WhatsFilm
No rating, 105 minutes