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Just as China’s strict family-planning laws are being liberalized, Zhao Dayong’s powerful Shadow Days comes along to underline how inhuman the one-child policy can be when enforced to the extreme. Yet the strength of the film doesn’t reside in narrow finger-pointing at one law; it conveys a chilling sense of outrage against the whole dehumanizing system in which Chinese society finds itself caught. The unglamorous setting in a run-down, isolated mountain community and the simple, straight-forward storytelling mark it as an art film for limited audiences, but its clear, concise narration and basically realistic approach should also help the film wend its way mainly through the festival and art house circuits.
Though this is Zhao’s second feature film, he is known above all as an outspoken documentarist who peers deeply under the rug. Shadow Days is set in Zhizilou, the same remote community on the China-Myanmar border explored in his 2008 doc Ghost Town. Here the word “ghost” again stands in for psychological perversions of the human mind, which lead to ruin and destruction.
The glorious natural landscape of verdant mountain ranges could be the setting of a mystical film about finding oneself, yet here Dayong and co-screenwriter Fu Xinhua turn that genre on its head. The little town where Renwei (Liang Ming) and his pregnant girlfriend Pomegranate (Li Ziqian) seek shelter from life’s storms is anything but the rural idyll it first appears to be. And the film’s spiritual moments, which aren’t all that convincing, are relegated to a Christian church tucked away outside town. The film’s real power is coldly portraying the horrors people visit on one other, and no need for ghosts there.
Renwei was born in the town, but long ago moved to the city where he met the lushly named Pomegranate. After getting into a serious scrape whose nature is never specified, he returns to his hometown to wait for their baby to be born and figure out what to do next. His only remaining relative is his uncle (Liu Yu), a local power player who lets him move into his old school, now a dusty, cobwebby shell scheduled for demolition. But the two young people cheerfully set about cleaning up a living space and making it home. Renwei lovingly attends to Pomegranate, killing and cooking a chicken for her, making her porridge in the morning and bringing her a TV set for entertainment. Surrounded by majestic mountains and fresh air, they seem to be in the right place to start life afresh.
Then his uncle gets him a job on the local family planning board he runs, together with a smug Madame Chairwoman. They have a quota to reach and urgently need to get the populace back in line on the one-child policy, “or the axe will drop.” Nothing seems more ridiculous than family planning in this remote, obviously under-populated setting, but orders are orders and they set about their business with old-school fervor that harks back to the Cultural Revolution.
Renwei feels very cool donning his camouflage fatigues and matching hat. Surprisingly, given that he’s about to become a father, he proves adept and quite ruthless at his new job. This mainly involves going door-to-door with the thug-like gang of family planners and dragging women out of their homes to be forcibly sterilized or even forced to abort. When they can’t find one young woman in hiding, Renwei ingeniously builds a fire in the building to smoke her out, and is patted on the back for his quick thinking.
But this nasty business soon takes its karmic toll. From being a loving, happy father-to-be, he turns into a hard-drinking tough who spends his evenings with his uncle and friends, leaving Pomegranate alone in the empty schoolhouse. Left increasingly on her own, she starts to drop by the Christian church on the edge of town, where the pastor is Renwei’s old chum Ah Pu. The sermon that all too obviously begins, “He gave his one and only Son … ”
Clearly the couple has something to hide, but the screenplay discretely reveals as little as possible on this score. Renwei admits to his uncle they aren’t married, justifying himself by saying it’s very common for couples to have children out of wedlock in the city. Later he casually asks the older man to procure a fake ID for him that will allow him to escape the police.
If Liang Ming’s Renwei is so blase he seems to be under-acting, Li Ziqian’s Pomegranate is a more interesting character. Her many tattoos, gold rings and fashion-forward wardrobe denote urban cool. Yet a note of melancholy creeps into her cheerful waiting for maternity. The shadows of her past never take clear shape, but are certainly hovering in the background when one night she sees a faceless ghost in the room that terrifies her.
And it’s not the only spook to appear. A recurrent, rather maladroit VFX of a newborn baby dangling in the air begins to haunt the uncle, preluding his mysterious illness. He now hobbles around on a cane and spends a lot of time in bed. Though he calls in a local shaman to remove the curse, and then the pastor to pray for him, and even burns incense at his home altar, which incongruously features a polished ceramic statue of Mao in place of a saint, recovery eludes him. (In the next scene, he orders a giant papier-mache effigy of Mao to be carried out of storage, presumably for disposal, an effective shot but not very clear in meaning.) The villagers begin to shun him as cursed. It is at this point that he hits on a really terrible idea, which leads to the film’s violent and hideously real final scenes.
Whether China’s recent resolution to let some families have two children, providing one of the parents is an only child, will alleviate the misery and violence depicted here, Shadow Days is a hard-to-forget allegory of evil propagating itself.
Venue: Hong Kong Filmart, March 24, 2014
A Skyforth Investment Fund Management production in association with Lantern Films China Company Ltd.
Cast: Liang Ming, Li Ziqian, Liu Yu
Director: Zhao Dayong
Screenwriters: Zhao Dayong, Fu Xinhua
Executive producers: May Liu, David Bandurski
Director of photography: Zhang Tianhui
Production designer: Wang Jian
Costumes: Xiao Bao
Editor: Li Qing
Music: Zhu Fangqiong
Sales Agent: Lantern Films
No rating, 95 minutes
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