Hinting at its sultry title in each frame, Brooklyn-born and Tisch (Asia)-educated writer-director Jordan Schiele takes on some thorny subject matter in his sweaty debut feature, Dog Days. A cinematographer by training, the Beijing-based Schiele turns an objective, outsider’s eye on some of rapidly developing China’s most pressing issues — among them the impact of its one-child policy, child trafficking and the disparity between the affluent cities on the East Coast and the less privileged interior. Carefully composed and directed with an assured hand, Dog Days is allegedly based on true events. That’s not hard to believe with the trafficking stories so widely circulated in the media. Given the subject matter and the relentless focus on China’s underclasses, release on the mainland may be unlikely aside from its screenings at the Beijing International Film Festival. Following its bow at Berlin’s Panorama earlier this year, other festivals should continue to follow suit, however, and an art-house release in Asia-Pacific and key urban markets overseas is entirely within reason.
Schiele has hung a social drama on the framework of what is essentially a crime thriller, albeit a low-key one. The story opens on a hot, oppressive night in a poor corner of Changsa, in southern Hunan Province, with second-rate nightclub dancer Lulu (Huang Lu) finishing her shift and heading home to her son. A single mother, she leaves the infant with the child’s father, Bai Long (Chen Tian Mu), while she’s at work, and on this night he and the baby are gone when she returns. Ignoring the casual sexism and judgment of her parenting skills she encounters during her search through the city’s backstreets, Lulu winds up confronting Bai’s gay drag queen lover, Sunny (Luo Lanshan), who agrees to help her track Bai down. In return, he asks Lulu to leave the couple in peace. Off the unlikely partners head to Shanghai, where Lulu is horrified — and later conflicted — to find out Bai has sold the baby to a wealthy, childless older couple, the Zhous (Xing Dan Wen and Lu Ze Xian), claiming his mother was dead.
Produced by Hong Kong indie darling Pang Ho-cheung’s (Love in a Puff, Aberdeen) Making Film, Dog Days has a distinct indie tone to it, one that serves the topical material well. Grim and nearly colorless for the most part, Schiele has piled a lot on his thematic plate and it’s up to Huang to differentiate them. Her strong central performance carries the film to its modest heights, bouncing wildly and vividly between rage, despair and relief, but never overstating her emotions. Schiele and Huang allow Lulu moments of self-awareness (she knows her job is less than ideal, even if it pays the bills) and the freedom to be tempted to leave her son with the rich couple, regardless of the sorrow etched on her face. Up to that point Lulu was single-minded in wanting her child back and obviously crushed he was gone, but when faced with a choice that could impact his whole life, she wavers. It’s heartbreaking. Dog Days keeps things spare; actions are never grandiose and Patrick Jonsson‘s score is equally sparse.
If Dog Days has a flaw, it’s that Schiele’s language and images tend toward the pedestrian at times: d.p. Nathanael Carton bathes Huang, and frequently Luo, in literal and symbolic shadows for most of the film. It doesn’t really detract from his points about the anonymity of China’s marginalized single mothers, poor and the LGBT community, and a generation that’s been raised in a sort of social isolation. Luo’s Sunny isn’t written in as many layers as Lulu (Bai, on the other hand has one note, which is greedy scuzzball) but he does manage to inform the fragile young man with a streak of compassion, and a sense of self-protection rather than selfishness. Ironically, given the overall bleakness of the story, Dog Days ends on a bright, vaguely hopeful note that both Lulu and Sunny are going to find that better life they’re seeking.
Production company: Making Film Production
Cast: Huang Lu, Chen Tian Mu, Luo Lanshan, Xing Dan Wen, Lu Ze Xian, Zhou Lan, Xia Qi
Director-screenwriter: Jordan Schiele
Producer: Pang Ho-Cheung, Subi Liang
Executive producer: Leung Sum
Director of photography: Nathanael Carton
Production designer: Ying Hai Tao
Costume designer: Lin Li Ying
Editor: Kong Jing Lei
Music: Patrick Jonsson
Casting: Liu Wan Xiu
World sales: Bravos Pictures
In Putonghua, Changsha dialect
Not rated, 93 minutes