'Fantasia' ('Huan Xiang Qu'): Cannes Review
Mainland Chinese director Wang Chao explores how a family copes with its patriarch falling ill and out of the workforce.
Never mind the title: Wang Chao hasn't steered away from his trademark social-realist aesthetics for his latest film. In fact, it ranks as perhaps the mainland Chinese director's most uncontroversial, stripped-down and -- sadly -- nondescript affair yet. Revolving around the slowly downward spiraling fortunes of an ordinary working-class family when the father is diagnosed with leukemia, Fantasia offers subtle family drama devoid of the twists and turns of Wang's previous offerings, or the increasingly explosive outings of his fellow so-called Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers.
In one of the film's earlier plot points, young protagonist Lin (Hu Ruijie) finds his young, impatient and cellphone-fiddling math teacher replaced by Mr. Zhou (Li Ou), a paternal figure whose kind demeanor and old-school attire looks straight out the past. The middle-aged man's appearance in the boy's life eventually leads to the film's tragic denouement, but this emergence of a figure from an epoch past might also signpost Wang's veering away from the distractions of 21st century life.
Barring the constant appearance of background footage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Fantasia could easily be misperceived as a story set in China in its simpler and more financially modest era in the 1990s. It could be interpreted as Wang's subtly expressed but damning message about his country. However much his leaders and his compatriots go over the top in branding China as a dragon on the rise, the tribulations of the commoner's life haven't changed that much -- especially the cruel cynicism permeating its populace.
While backed by Chinese funds, Fantasia counts prominent French support. Lining up alongside Wang and his financier Lü Jianmin is associate producer Olivier Aknin, who is also involved in the director's filmed but yet-to-be-finished project Seek McCartney (a more accessible piece starring pop idol Han Geng as a man trying to deliver his deceased soulmate's ashes to his sister back in France). With its soft approach to social critique, Fantasia (which is repped by Les Films du Losange) could prove to be a tough sell and might well find some kind of a limited interest at Gallic art house cinemas after its premiere in Cannes' Certain Regard -- a sidebar Wang won in 2006 with his nightclub-set drama Luxury Car.
Fantasia could be summed up very succinctly as father falls ill, family falls apart. Unlike similar-themed realist productions probing working-class trials in the heavily industrial and smoggy city of Chongqing -- among them the noir-tinged pair of Zhang Yibai's Lost Indulgence (2008) and Wang Xiaoshuai's Chongqing Blues (2010) -- Wang Chao clearly signposts his character's one-way descent into despair. Starting off in a buoyant mood, the film features the family of four enjoying an unremarkable but contented life. Mr. Zhao (Zhang Xu) enjoys reverence as an old-hand in his gear-making factory, his wife, Tang Min (Su Su), mingles happily with customers at her newsstand, and the elder sister Qin (Jian Renzi) enjoys spending time with her boyfriend. It's sweetness all around as parents and children get along well, eagerly taking pleasure of what their modest means can afford.
The bliss is, of course, temporary. Cracks emerge in life when Lu is confirmed as having cancer and his condition worsens, leading to his factory cutting back on footing his medical bills. The man's dignity takes a huge knock when he is shunned by his colleagues and mocked for capitalizing on his ailment; his wife finds friends and family actually questioning why they should lend her money to invest in her husband's lost cause. Qin gets a job at a bar as a waitress and soon becomes an escort, and Lin -- who is already mocked for being a slow learner in class -- is bullied for being a sick man's son.
Amid all of this, the boy's discipline disintegrates. While his "transgressions" in the beginning might mostly involve masturbation in bed at night, pent-up anger soon leads him to drop out of school and wander around town during the day. It's here that the film makes its leap into fancy, as Lin connects with a silent, trumpet-playing bearded man (Zhang Lu) and a nameless young girl (Wang Xiaomo) on a rickety river barge, with the former inducting him into a life of petty crime and the latter becoming the object of his youthful desire.
But the film's main step into fantasy lies in the end, as the boy Lin witnesses the disintegration of his happy family life. Wang's imagined final scene seems to be a canny way of preventing the censors from vetoing the ending, since violent and murderous acts of vengeance are still a no-go in China, as the ban on Jia Zhangke's Palme d'Or nominee A Touch of Sin testifies. But it's still a flight into the surreal as slight as the story itself. Though a technically competent piece, Fantasia seems to be a step out of time, a return to the good old days of storytelling techniques and social norms that are no longer there.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 21, 2014
Production Companies: Wutong Films, Legend Films, Wuhan Legend Film & TV Art, Beijing Chun Qiu Culture
Director: Wang Chao
Cast: Hu Ruijie, Su Su, Zhang Xu, Jian Renzi
Producers: Lv Jianmin, Wang Chao
Screenwriter: Wang Chao
Director of Photography: Zhao Yuqing
Production Designer: Tian Yulong
Costume Designer: Lan Yue
Editors: Huang Shang, Wang Chao
Music: Cheng Mingzheng
International Sales: Les Films du Losange
No rating, 86 minutes