'A Loner' ('Da Xue Dong Zhi'): Film Review | Shanghai 2017

Courtesy of Yourpet Pictures
A subtle and solemn piece.

More than five decades after her stellar turn as a model soldier in 'The Red Detachment of Women,' Chinese actress Zhu Xijuan returns in Xing Xiao's film about a pensioner's solitary existence in Beijing.

The lead in A Loner is played by the 79-year-old, Los Angeles-based Zhu Xijuan, who went from being a revolutionary screen icon in the 1960s with her starring role in The Red Detachment of Women to a top-ranking management executive in one of China's first regional TV networks in the 1980s before migrating to the U.S. in the 1990s. Behind the camera is Xing Xiao, a 34-year-old studio-employed director trying here to merge his mainstream instincts with art house aspirations after helming two romantic comedies, a generic thriller and a few more shorts since his full-fledged debut in 2010.

This interesting meeting of minds has generated a simple, poised and mildly touching piece about a retiree's solitary life in a small courtyard house in a Beijing back alley. While less harsh and socially critical than other independent art house titles exploring the anguish of the elderly — Zhang Tao's despair-fueled Cannes entry Last Laugh, for example — A Loner remains a sufficiently engaging portrait of an individual quietly confronting the solitude, hopes and regrets of her twilight years.

Though it may not become a big crossover hit, A Loner might still make some noise because of its backers. Its bow at the Shanghai International Film Festival was part of a major branding blitz of financiers Oriental Hollywood, while Jiang Ping, who is credited as artistic director, is also the vice president and general manager of the state-owned China Film Company. Patrons like these should give the film a push for exposure at home and abroad — and A Loner does fit the bill both in terms both of quality and social themes.

The protagonist is Madam Wei (Zhu), who lives with only a small dog for company in a well-appointed house tucked away in an old Beijing neighborhood. Glum and sour-faced, she shuns friendly greetings from her neighbors and bemoans the lack of courtesy of the younger generation, as fresh-faced tourists wander around her street, treating the old houses (and possibly herself) as "ugly parts" awaiting reconstruction and urban renewal. Her frustration doubles when her daughter calls to say she and her family can't make it back home for the traditional winter solstice dinner.

Falling asleep in her armchair after the phone call, Wei wakes the next day to find her quiet world slowly caving in. Her young lodger, a struggling painter named Chentai (Zhang Tong), tells her he is terminating his lease and returning home because his father has died. Her dog has disappeared, and so has the old neighbor (Cao Maishun) she regularly ignores; later, she learns of his death, witnessing how his children row and brawl during his funeral rites on the street.

Throughout all this, Wei's own story is slowly revealed through shots of family photos and the memorabilia pinned on her walls. Via letters and her voiceover, the viewer learns of how Wei raised her daughter alone after her husband committed suicide more than four decades ago — in a death note, he told his wife he could no longer bear the "chaos" and "evil" around him. (Xing, who wrote the screenplay, stops short of elaborating further, but one can safely assume the husband killed himself amidst the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976.)

Meanwhile, flashbacks and fantastical images begin infiltrating Wei's consciousness. In monochrome dreams, her husband (played by the director himself) plays with their daughter in the courtyard, while repeated reprises of an aria from a traditional opera — one about a Tang Dynasty warrior's reunion with his wife after 18 years apart — keep surfacing in her thoughts. Unsurprisingly, there's no feel-good ending in the cards; still, the denouement remains devastatingly stark, heightened by the sight of the whining dog but unfortunately undermined by a sentimental ballad.

Then again, this is perhaps Xing's only concession to melodrama. While some of the lines — especially Wei's in front of her husband's portrait — could be too explanatory, A Loner remains admirably restrained throughout its concise running time. Feng Xuan's camerawork unobtrusively depicts the elderly lady and her surroundings with its fair share of tracking shots, and the art direction packs Wei's home full of objects that speak of the family's past and present. The measured performance of veteran Zhu — which secured her a prize among the Shanghai fest's audience awards — is pivotal to A Loner's modest achievements.

Production companies: Yourpet Pictures, Beijing Big Box Pictures, Light and Shadow Carving Pictures
Cast: Zhu Xijuan, Zhang Tong, Cao Maishun, Xing Xiao
Director-screenwriter-editor: Xing Xiao
Producers: Chen Chuangkui, Elsa Huo
Executive producers: Fang Yizhong, Seven Wei, Xing Xiao, Frank Lin
Director of photography: Feng Xuan
Production designer: Jiang Ping
Music: Vika Zeng, Two Zhao
Casting: Li Da
Sales: Go Global

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival

In Mandarin
88 minutes