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VENICE – A divorced couple has to face the horror of their child’s abduction together in the China-Hong Kong co-production Dearest (Qin’ai de), from Hong Kong-born director Peter Ho-Sun Chan. Less a thriller than a drama with melodramatic flourishes, the film’s main aim is to tug at the heartstrings with its true-story premise of people separated from, and then desperately searching for, those they love most. But an unfocused screenplay too often keeps the film’s solid performances from becoming thematically relevant on top of being emotionally hard-hitting. Nonetheless, the headlines-grabbing topic and local star power can only help its commercial prospects at home. After Venice, the film will travel to Toronto where it’ll bow as a Special Presentation.
In July 2009, Tian Wen-jun (Huang Bo) runs a small convenience store and Internet cafe in the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzen, near the border with Hong Kong. Since he’s divorced Lu Xiao-juan (Hao Lei), who has since remarried, he has custody of their son, young Tian Peng (nicknamed Pengpeng). When Wen-jun is distracted by a fight between two costumers, his little boy runs off with his playmates and doesn’t come home again.
This is the beginning of nightmare lasting years for the parents, who find themselves thrown together again in their shared attempts to find their child, who seems to have just disappeared off the face of the earth. To make matters worse, the divorcees can only turn to each other to share that very specific kind of pain and desperation very few parents know.
However, like elsewhere in the film, screenwriter Zhang Ji, who also wrote Chan’s American Dreams in China from last year, doesn’t manage to exploit this emotionally complex situation fully. Possibly too eager to stick to the real-life facts, Zhang instead keeps introducing new characters with their own problems, which transform the film from an intimate parental drama into something akin to a long-running soap opera, in which a large cast of characters all has homes, issues and needs that the audience needs to keep track of.
Most prominent among these new entries is an ambitious if prejudiced young lawyer, Gao Xia (Tong Dawei), who in the least pertinent of the numerous subplots has a mother who needs looking after, and Li Hong-qin (Zhao Wei), a teary-eyed mother of two. The latter comes closest to representing the irrational and primal need of a parent to protect her children and her character offers some interesting parallels to Tian and Lu, though here too, the muddled storytelling and uninventive editing keep a lot of this too unpronounced to allow audiences to make the connections necessary to enable more universal themes to resonate beyond the immediate story.
Still, the film impresses with its ugly vision of child abduction in contemporary China. It’s alarming to see how Chinese urbanites, broadcasting their pleas for any information about their children on TV and the Internet, get inundated by hundreds of calls from people who all claim they can help as long as they are paid first — with some even passing off other kids as the lost child.
For a few sequences, Pengpeng’s father travels up and down the country in the hope of finding his son. The couple also joins a therapy group for parents whose children have gone missing, led by a charismatic peer (Zhang Yi). Initially, this seems like a safe haven where they can freely share feelings few others would understand, but things turn scary when the group starts to take the law into its own hands (something else the screenplay seems ambivalent about, so instead avoids to directly comment on).
Star actress Zhao (Shaolin Soccer, Red Cliff), who recently also made a splash as a director with So Young, here suggests she’s the Chinese Juliette Binoche, able to imbue each new crying scene with slightly different emotions, though a scene in which she makes eye contact with her daughter through a window feels particularly weepy and melodramatic even for this film. Huang, from the comedy hit Lost in Thailand, here shows he’s a more than capable dramatic actor as well, and Hao, as his former wife, offers such a beautifully understated yet heartfelt performance that the crack of a smile that creeps onto her face when someone takes her hand feels like the equivalent of an entire stadium yelling for joy.
With the exception of Leon Ko’s insistent, occasionally almost shrill score, which too often feels like it’s violently prodding the viewers to please shed some tears or at least be very moved, the film is technically very competent.
Production companies: We Pictures, Alibaba Pictures Group, Stellar Mega Films, J.Q. Pictures, Enlight Pictures Shanghai, Real Thing Media, HB Studio, Pulin Production
Cast: Zhao Wei, Huang Bo, Tong Dawei, Hao Lei, Zhang Yi, Zhang Yi, Zhang Yuqi
Director: Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Screenplay: Zhang Ji
Producers: Jojo Hui Yuet-chun, Peter Ho-Sun Chain
Director of photography: Su Chou
Production designer: Sun Li
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Derek Hui
Music: Leon Ko
Sales: We Distribution
No rating, 130 minutes
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