'Father and Sons' ('Fu Yu Zi'): Rotterdam Review

Father and Sons Still - H 2015
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Father and Sons Still - H 2015

A minimalist piece hinting at the history-obsessed auteur exploring more modern concerns

Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing's latest explores how social and media forces shape a boy's upbringing and his relationship with his father.

More than a year after the release of a three-hour-plus documentary shot within the confines of a fortified mental asylum, Chinese auteur Wang Bing has taken the no-exit theme and aesthetic to its extreme with his latest film. Revolving around an underworked rural laborer and his two boys, Father and Sons unfolds nearly entirely in the family's small shack, with the bulk of the film comprising long takes of the elder sibling lazing around in bed, fiddling with his mobile phone while the unremitting blare of an unseen television plays in the background.

Compared to most films in Wang's oeuvre — from the mammoth ode to China's post-industrial decay West of the Tracks to the aforementioned 'Til Madness Do Us Part, via his numerous takes on the Cultural Revolution and its devastating aftermath — Father and Sons appears more limited in its socio-historical scope. This has to do with its being more of a salvage project: Originally seeking to chronicle stonemason Cai Shihua's daily struggles, Wang's shoot was cut short by his subject's employer (probably for fear of how a portrayal of his underling's pitiful existence would affect his business).

Read More China's CCTV to Serve Up Patriotic Fare for Children Over Lunar New Year

The director eventually edited his material into a 87-minute film that actually made its bow as a gallery projection in exhibitions in Paris and Vladivostok before finally touring the festival circuit as a feature-length documentary — with its latest stop being a berth at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. With Wang's reputation as a cutting-edge, socially conscious auteur and the film channeling the minimalist spirit of Pedro Costa's work on destitute souls trapped indoors, Father and Sons' run will definitely continue — maybe as a stopgap while the filmmaker toils toward the completion of his next feature.

Then again, Father and Sons is as expedient as it is a watershed for Wang. Whereas the director was previously more preoccupied with the past — the political pogroms which ravaged China during Mao Zedong's reign, or the aftermath of the self-styled helmsman's ambitious industrialization of the country — Father and Sons is, as the title suggests, about a generational clash. However, the clash is not exactly one between the patriarch and his scions: The much-circulated still of Cai Shihua's shadow looming over his boy — an image mirroring Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie — is quite misleading; in fact, this film is about a parental absence, with the children instead nurtured and shaped by the excess of 21st century media technology.

Read More Berlin: TV Drama, China and Startups in Focus at European Film Market

Central to this premise is the elder sibling, Yongjin, who actually is seen telling his father not to block his view of the television in an earlier sequence. Not that he cares that much about the passe medium, though, as he is seen mostly thumbing messages into his cellphone in his never-ending online chat with his friends. While he conducts his conversation with all those unseen, faraway beings, he ignores the norm-conforming cacophony of schmaltz and sensory thrills emanating from China's stringently state-controlled television channels: from soap opera characters shrieking about disgraced family honors to game show hosts asking kids to call in for cool prizes, and from sappy ballads about children dreaming of better futures to nature programs about tadpoles growing up on their own.

It's necessary to understand the voices emanating from the television in order to properly judge the layers of Father and Sons, but strangely the programs are not subtitled, thus condemning them as merely a shrill stream of white noise scoring scenes of boredom and helplessness (the only shots outside the shack features the father kneeling on the roof, puffing slowly on his cigarette as he stares into the distance where factory plants stand). Father and Sons demands patience and contextualization from the viewer, much more so than Wang's previous films.

Production company: Wil Productions
Director-screenwriter: Wang Bing
Producers: Kong Lihong
Cinematographers: Wang Bing, Liu Xianhui

Editor: Adam Kerby, Wang Bing
Sound designer: Emmanuel Soland
International Sales: Wil Productions
In Mandarin

No rating, 87 minutes