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A gregarious, imaginative 11-year-old Chinese boy in a provincial city collides with, rather than grows into, adulthood in Sun Aoqian’s Over the Sea, an understated examination of how youthful exuberance and imaginative pleasures are wrenched away and innocence is lost to the ebbs and flows of modern China. Pivoting on a deceivingly effective performance by young actor Yu Kunjie, debuting director Sun’s minor-key drama about disillusionment should get scooped up by Asia-focused festivals and art house streamers following its premiere at the Busan International Film Festival.
One of the pic’s greatest strengths is Sun’s command of images and cinematographer Zhou Cong’s ability to execute Sun and co-writer An Jier’s vision. Though there’s only the loosest concept of time (Is this a weekend? A month?), the mother ocean imagery is a bit on the nose and a tangent regarding a family history is slightly muddled, Over the Sea’s smooth long takes and dreamy flights of fancy make the central character’s dilemma seem both sad and inevitable.
In the cold open, a young mother feeds her baby and puts him down for a nap before hopping on a motorbike, presumably with her partner, and riding away, leaving the infant boy behind. A short while later, Xiaojie (Yu) is a boisterous schoolboy fixated on the ocean (the pic’s Chinese title translates roughly to “the young man and the sea”) and on a mission to create a fantastic project for class. He lives with his uncle and cousin, Old Sun (Sun Xinfu) and Birdy (Rebecca Li), helping out around the motel and restaurant they run in northeastern Yingkou. He’s a cheeky little thing, often referred to by regular customers as a “little monkey” but generally well liked. He’s also a bit of a troublemaker, preferring to swipe leeks from the neighbor’s garden and stomp all over their fresh concrete rather than just buy what Old Sun asks for.
Sun and Zhou efficiently relay just who Xiaojie is in a fleet, vibrant, seven-minute-long shot as he cycles home from school, his ocean project on his mind. He sings. He’s loud. He talks to strangers. He’s vivacious and possessed of a youthful, carefree spirit that’s infectious. His biggest concern is purchasing an ocean-life encyclopedia with which to complete his project, and which Birdy promises to buy for him on the weekend.
But those plans evaporate along with Xiaojie’s innocence when a son of a local big shot comes into the restaurant, gets handsy with Birdy and gets promptly turfed by Old Sun. That humiliation results in Old Sun’s retaliatory beatdown at the hands of the thug’s buddies and an accidental car crash that puts the old man in the hospital, racking up some expensive medical bills. The only way to cover the debts is to either marry Birdy off like chattel or file a false police report about the accident, put the blame on the driver and collect compensation from them. Everyone expects Xiaojie to be the star witness and lie about what he saw — including Birdy and Old Sun, who told him never to do that.
The sneakiest thing about Over the Sea is how over-the-top and overly childlike (there are literally a series of face-palms) Xioajie is to begin with, and how actorly and mannered Yu’s performance is. But by the time Sun rolls around the final, sedate sequence of Xiaojie sitting in the police waiting room to give a false statement, his stillness and lack of animation is more tragic for it. His reckless abandonment of an apple the driver — who arrives with an infant in her arms — kindly gives to him demonstrates the one-two punch of Birdy and Old Sun successfully wearing him down. We know the final payout will ruin that young mother, but Xioajie is already brushing it off and sadly sealing his mercenary fate.
Production company: Shanghai Turan Movie Co.
Cast: Yu Kunjie Rebecca Li, Sun Xinfu, Lan Hui, Dai Jun
Director: Sun Aoqian
Screenwriters: Sun Aoqian, An Jier
Producer: Dun He
Executive producers: Yu Xiao, Bill Kong, Hugh Simon, Ellen Eliasoph, Peter Zheng, Isabelle Yin
Director of photography: Zhou Cong
Production designer: Zhao Mingsheng
Editor: Du Guangwei
Music: Chen Xueran
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: Edko Films
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