'Laughing to Die' ('Xi Sang'): Film Review

Laughing To Die - H 2016
Zero Degree Film Studio
A gritty Chinese nightmare.

An ailing octogenarian spends her undignified final days in her children's unwelcoming homes in mainland Chinese director Zhang Tao's feature film debut.

The title of young director Zhang Tao's first feature stems from the traditional Chinese concept of funerals for very old people being "joyous" because they have lived longer than they were expected to. But happiness is in short supply in Laughing to Die (Xi Sang), a harrowing drama about an ailing, impoverished elderly woman subjected to one humiliation after another as she moves in with her children while she awaits a vacancy at a nursing home.

A stark depiction of a meek octogenarian's slow and painful shuffle through a cycle of rejection and outright abuse during her twilight days, Laughing to Die is akin to Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story but with the brutal, hardened cynicism in parent-children relationships brought much more graphically to the forefront. Sharing a similar sentiment (and certain storytelling and visual traits) with The Death of Mr Lazarescu Cristi Puiu's equally heartrending account of how medical staff from a string of hospitals try to get a sick old man off their charge — Laughing To Die is a relentless j'accuse about dysfunctional social relationships in a country obsessed with its own self-congratulatory, gleaming national narrative.

Zhang, who also penned the screenplay, is also canny enough in using his long-suffering and largely mute lead character's passage to reveal numerous other problems besetting China today. The protagonist, if we can call her that, is like the eye through which the viewer observes the country's social malaise. Boasting composed mise-en-scene and heartbreaking performances from a completely non-professional cast, Laughing to Die should lead a (sorry) happy life on the festival circuit after its debut as part of the Debut Spotlight program of the FIRST International Film Festival in the western Chinese city of Xining. (Previous festival debuts which eventually opened abroad include Coffin in the Mountain, which premiered at Venice's Critics' Week sidebar in 2014, and What's In The Darkness, a Berlinale entry this year.)

The film revolves around Madam Lin (Yu Fengyun), an erstwhile self-sufficient 86-year-old who is coerced into agreeing to leave the family house for a bunk in an in-town nursing home, or "homes for respecting the elderly," as they are known in mainland China. The problem is that a seriously ill resident will have to vacate her bed (by dying, of course) before Madam Lin can move in. What is first believed to be just a short hiccup eventually becomes a drawn-out wait as that lodger somehow recovers and Madam Lin's nightmare unfolds as she stays with her children.

Respect is certainly scarce, as she moves from one household to another as she fails to connect with her feeble and cash-strapped children, while their nonplussed (and sometimes downright abusive) spouses consider her a burden. Her loving relationships with the grandchildren also backfire, as kind gestures and words only lead to more run-ins (and, in one case, a young one actually running away).

Admittedly, some of these characters runs dangerously close to being archetypes, and events sometimes unfold like generic melodramatic tropes: Death and disaster seem to follow poor, tragic Madam Lin. Still, Zhang's documentary-like approach — thanks to the taut camerawork of Wu Zhuo and Chen Xiang — injects much authenticity into the proceedings.

The pic ultimately shows how all the characters are — like Madam Lin herself — victims of circumstances out of their control. More than acting simply out of innate personal greed, Madam Lin's troubled descendants — working-class families under the breadline, or teens and twentysomethings grappling with their lives in various confused ways — are all braving the fallout of unfettered urbanization-led development unfolding across China today.

Perhaps it makes sense that Madam Lin, forced into observing her and her kin's troubles, eventually seems to lose her mind in the film's final third, as she giggles at tragic moments when she is expected to cry. Faced with such absurdities — the most extreme being the final scene, which is probably one of the most repugnant wakes to have been committed on film — what could one do but laugh? While not without its flaws, Laughing to Die is a gripping, gritty account of how the weak and the old are cast aside when societies weave gleaming dreams solely around the powerful, the young and the new.

Production company: Zero Degree Film Studio
Cast: Yu Fengyun, Chen Shilan, Li Baoming
Director-screenwriter-editor: Zhang Tao
Producer-screenwriter: Li Yong
Directors of photography: Wu Zhuo, Chen Xiang
Production designer: Zheng Yulong

In Mandarin

Not rated, 108 minutes