'Stonehead' ('Shi Tou'): Film Review | Hong Kong 2017

Courtesy of Hong Kong International Film Festival
A heart-rending allegory about the end of innocence.

First-time filmmaker Zhao Xiang depicts a schoolboy's struggle to replace a punctured soccer ball in a Chinese village.

Out of the five mainland Chinese fictional features that bowed in Berlin, only Stonehead made it to the recent Hong Kong International Film Festival. Zhou Xiang's directorial debut is also the only title to have received an official screening license from China's notoriously rigorous censors. Revolving around a poor rural schoolboy's attempts to buy a new football, the film certainly seems harmless in contrast to the other four grittier, racier titles.

But there's much more to Stonehead than its simple premise suggests. Zhou, after all, had already witnessed up close how filmmakers suffered from censorship woes during his stints as Wang Xiaoshuai's assistant on Beijing Bicycle and Drifters. Finally helming a film for the first time, he has delivered a masterful and powerful allegory about warped social norms in China in the form of what appears to be an unassuming children's movie.

Produced by veteran Chinese director Liu Jie (Judge, De Lan) and Village Roadshow Pictures Asia's Sinophile CEO Ellen Eliasoph (who also penned the film's English subtitles), Stonehead is reminiscent of the socially relevant and angst-ridden children's films that emerged from a similarly restrictive Iran in the 1990s, like Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon, in which a child's seemingly small struggles reflect the bigger social problems at hand.

With its poised storytelling and proficient technical values, Stonehead deserves more than just a berth in sections dedicated to kids' movies (it bowed in Berlin's Generation Kplus sidebar). Its selection for Hong Kong's competition for new filmmakers marks a breakthrough. Swen Group has picked up the film's international rights, and will release the title in North America, Britain and Hong Kong.

Set in a village where telephones and TVs are just as few and far between as adults, most of whom have left to work as laborers in cities, the film turns on Stonehead (Zhu Hongbo), a third-grader who lives with his grandmother at the far end of his village. After receiving a "model student" certificate in town, he is somehow also given a brand-new soccer ball. Upon learning of this bonus prize, Stonehead's classmates and teacher press him to bring the ball back to school. Considering it as his and nobody else's, the boy reluctantly does — but only after making a slight cut on the ball out of spite.

Soon enough, the ball deflates during a game. As Stonehead denies puncturing it in the first place, the other boys make a culprit out of his chubby best friend Pouchy (Cai Jiakun), who is accused of landing the last kick at it. While Stonehead goes to illicit extremes (as much as the censors would allow, of course) to stump up some cash, Pouchy is subjected to increasingly brutal taunts from the other boys in school. What follows is a heart-rending account of Stonehead's confrontation with the harsh circumstances around him — some shaped by others, and others of his own doing.

Granted, his struggles might seem pretty banal compared to those in much harsher films produced elsewhere about playground bullying, but the mundanity here sometimes turns out to be just as unnerving as explicit violence.

But the film is at its most heartbreaking when normalcy finally resumes at the end, and everybody ignores Stonehead's mea culpa so as not to face the consequences of their own misplaced accusations and unjustified harassment of the innocent and weak. It's a rite of passage in which a boy loses his best friend, his self-esteem and his belief in human goodness — a grim reality juxtaposed with cinematographer Florian Z. E. Jinke's picturesque landscapes and Qiu Yongsheng's soft soundscapes.

Zhu and Cai deliver pitch-perfect performances as the two young and confused protagonists. Without resorting to sloganeering or histrionics, Zhao has produced an overwhelming piece about the end of innocence in the seemingly serene Chinese countryside and beyond. 

Production company: 3C Film Co. Ltd
Distributor: Swen Group
Cast: Zhu Hongbo, Cai Jiakun

Director: Zhao Xiang
Screenwriters: Zhao Xiang, Liu Dan
Producers: Liu Jie, Fan Congzheng, Ellen Eliasoph
Executive producers: Liu Jie
Director of photography: Florian Z.E. Jinke
Editors: Gao Shan
Music: Qiu Yongsheng
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival (Young Cinema Competition)

Sales: Village Roadshow Pictures Asia

In Mandarin
90 minutes

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