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In Old Beast, a pension-aged man gambles the night away while his wife lies ailing at home, sells off a destitute friend’s only possession to shower his mistress with gifts, and asks the police to arrest and jail his children for trying to straighten his ways. But there’s more to this than just domestic melodrama. Armed with some gritty mise-en-scene, riveting camerawork and a gripping turn by veteran Tu Men in the leading role, Zhou Ziyang’s first feature offers an engaging portrait of dreary, disoriented lives in a provincial Chinese city.
Produced by famed auteur Wang Xiaoshuai, once China’s premier chronicler of urban malaise with films such as Chongqing Blues and Red Amnesia, Old Beast uses the collapsed relationships between a reckless retiree and his irreverent children to highlight the inter-class, cross-generation schisms largely obscured by the Chinese government’s gleaming social narrative of the day.
After a low-key premiere at the FIRST International Film Festival in the western Chinese city of Xining, the film will make its international bow in Tokyo’s Asian Future sidebar before traveling onward to Taiwan, where it has surprisingly scooped four nominations at the Golden Horses awards. Both Wang’s pedigree and the film’s social realist approach will drive its progress through the festival circuit.
Well known in the 1990s and 2000s for his multiple performances as Genghis Khan before his stellar turn in Degena Yun’s award-winning contemporary social drama A Simple Goodbye (2015), Tu Men is at his best in Old Beast as the monstrous Yang. Instead of nursing his terminally ill wife, he roams around town on his sputtering motorbike and spends his time at mahjong parlors and seedy saunas. When a herdsman friend entrusts his camel to Yang, he sells it to a butcher and spends the money on his mistress.
He then steals the funds saved up for his wife’s treatment to buy his friend a cheap dairy cow, claiming (falsely) that this should provide him with a better living than the camel. Angered by their father’s wanton ways, his long-aggrieved children eventually hatch a plan to get even — a gambit that leads to a bitter row, a bloody fight and a belligerent showdown in the courts.
To screenwriter-director Zhou’s credit, however, a corny reconciliation is not in the cards, with Yang realizing how he could save his children from harm but not himself from damnation. When he finally regains his conscience and tells his comatose wife his laments about their “rough times” together, it’s all too late.
What makes Old Beast roar is its convincingly jaded characters, each of them coming with flaws brought about by their daily toils in life. Nearly every conversation the children have among themselves revolves around money. There are their acerbic arguments about the cost of their mother’s care, the differences in their salaries and the like — despairingly realistic interactions akin to those in The Last Laugh (aka Laughing To Die), Zhang Tao’s even grimmer depiction of an old woman’s final days in the care of her cynical offspring.
And then there’s the film’s setting. The story unfolds in Ordos, where the newly constructed but sparsely populated suburb Kangbashi was once dubbed a “ghost town.” Yang’s daily escapades see him zooming by dilapidated houses in the old town and empty tenement blocks in the “new city”; both landscapes are symbolic of the mental states of the film’s characters.
In the running for the cinematography award at the Golden Horses, the Belgian-born but Beijing-based DP Matthias Delvaux — who, like Zhou, is working on his first feature — captures these bleak, barren settings vividly. True to its name (which is already milder than its working title of “Old Bastard”), Old Beast offers a striking nightmare in stark contrast to the glittering Chinese Dream envisioned by the country’s leader Xi Jinping. It’s a film in which a young team of filmmakers dares to say something about what’s happening on the ground, and they say it with heart and style.
Production company: Dongchun Films
Cast: Tu Men, Wang Chaobei, Yi Danna, Wang Mingshuo
Director-screenwriter: Zhou Ziyang
Producers: Wang Xiaoshuai, Liu Xuan
Director of photography: Matthias Delvaux
Production designer: He Shuang
Music: Song Yuzhe
Editing: Li Xinzhu
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