Forgetting to Know You: Berlin Review
Chinese fiction writer-turned-director Quan Ling debuts with an intimate portrait of a troubled marriage, produced by festival favorite Jia Zhang-ke.
BERLIN – Produced by highly regarded Sixth Generation Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-ke, fiction writer-turned-filmmaker Quan Ling’s Forgetting to Know You (Mo Sheng) is an intriguing debut that owes much to the aesthetic of its director’s mentor and his regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai. An intimately enveloping portrait of a woman growing apart from her husband, the film is stronger on character shadings and mood than on narrative momentum. But it keeps you watching, not least because of the striking depth of field and dense textures of its digitally shot visuals.
Jia’s films such as Platform, Unknown Pleasures and The World assemble an immersive mosaic of a changing China, in which Yu’s fluid camerawork picks up incisive details via its deceptive observational detachment. There’s some similarity here in the balance between grubby documentary-style realism and poetic distance, applied to a story that’s essentially a soapy domestic drama.
How much of the nuanced handling is the screenwriter-director’s own assured grasp or whether it's partly that she's in the capable hands of a resourceful cinematographer is unclear. But Quan displays a keen understanding of the suffocation of life in a bustling small town, and a warm emotional affinity for her unhappy, frequently prickly protagonist, Chen Xuesong (Tao Hong).
Chen snoozes the sweltering hours away working the counter at a corner store in a Yangtze River town not far from Chongqing, while her carpenter husband Cai Weihang (Guo Xiandong) works for a near-bankrupt furniture company. They have a sweet young daughter, but communication is strained and affections frayed between the couple, colored by mutual nagging, creeping distrust, financial worries and, on Cai’s part, suspicion of his wife’s perceived indiscretions. The poignancy of the story comes from the evidence that despite all this, Chen and Cai still deeply love each other.
Wu (Zi Yi), a taxi driver besotted with Chen, comes by the store to flirt each day, reminding her of what romance feels like. But Cai’s bigger issue is with her prior relationship to a real estate developer (Zhang Yibai), whom she dated from high school up until shortly before their marriage. A feisty woman who refuses to play the subservient wife, Chen is brittle and impatient with Cai’s paranoia. But constant reminders of the property developer’s success and his own failure feed her husband’s jealousy. These festering feelings erupt in a shockingly frank scene of marital rape.
Angry and shaken, Chen takes off with Wu for a day, abandoning her responsibilities. And Cai reacts immaturely by going AWOL the next day in retaliation. Despite the seemingly irreversible chill that has crept into their relationship, Chen rallies herself and makes an effort to save the marriage by asking a favor of her ex-boyfriend. She borrows the money Cai needs for a business venture, but even this gesture creates more friction.
There’s a certain messiness to the storytelling that echoes the conflicts roiling in both Chen and Cai’s heads, and Quan's use of music often plays against the tone of a scene in interesting ways. With its unconventional approach to a conventional story, this feels definitely like a real movie from a new filmmaker with a point of view. The complexity of Tao’s performance in the central role alone makes it captivating.
Laced with moments of low-key humor and small but knowingly observed details, the film is a touching yet unsentimental picture of the rough patches in a marriage that moves to its own peculiar rhythms.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Xstream Pictures, Hansen Media
Cast: Tao Hong, Guo Xiaodong, Zi Yi, Zhang Yibai
Director-screenwriter: Quan Ling
Producers: Jia Zhang-Ke, Sara Po
Executive producer: Jia Zhang-Ke
Director of photography: Yu Lik-Wai
Production designer: Liu Weixin
Music: Lim Giong
Editor: Wang Yuan
Sales: Xstream Pictures
No rating, 87 minutes