Memories Look at Me (Ji Yi Wang Zhe Wo): Locarno Review

Memories Look at Me - film still
Intimate look at family life in modern China

First-time director Fang Song’s prize-winning docu-drama offers more doc than drama.

LOCARNO - A talk-heavy trawl through a family’s shared memories, this low-key Chinese docu-drama has just won the Best First Feature prize at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The pace is gently hypnotic and the topic fitfully interesting, but the format will test the patience of all but serious art-cinema fans with its narrow focus and chilly film-school minimalism. Theatrical prospects seem thin outside of further festival slots and specialist screenings for culturally curious Sino-philes.

Fang Song is a young director who previously acted opposite Juliette Binoche in Hou Hsaio-Hsein’s 2007 drama Flight Of The Red Balloon. Her debut feature is the first fruit of a new film investment and production partnership between Xstream Pictures and Beijing-based Yihui Media, established last year by the filmmaker Zhang Ke-Jia, whose own films like Platform and 24 City offers bittersweet snapshots of contemporary China that blend elements of fiction and documentary.

Memories Look At Me employs a similar hybrid technique, albeit in an even more austere and meditative manner. Song’s film is not billed as documentary, but it features the director and her parents, all with their own names, all apparently playing themselves. Beginning with Song’s return home from Beijing to the modest family apartment in Nanjing, it is mostly composed of long conversations filmed in single static shots inside the apartment. The director herself is ever present, usually hovering at the edge of the frame, gently drawing memories from her mother, father and brother.

The core conversational topics here are universal enough to make sense to a global audience: family ties, careers, relationships, children, and old friends, lost loved ones, weddings and funerals. But Chinese audiences will probably feel a deeper connection to culturally specific touches, such as ritual respect for long-dead ancestors and the central importance of food in any social gathering.

Featuring a single exterior scene, Memories Look At Me is a bracingly ascetic experience, but it may prove emotionally engrossing to patient viewers. There are flashes of comedy, such as when Song and her mother wrestle with a chicken, and unexpectedly moving moments, notably a meeting with family friends whose daughter is dying of cancer. Discussion of healthcare insurance and the changing urban landscape provide a mildly interesting window into contemporary Chinese society. Recurring images of Song’s parents sleeping becomes a motif, lending the film a light sprinkle of visual poetry.

But Song’s low-budget labour of love is also ploddingly tedious at times, a self-indulgent scrapbook of personal anecdotes that will have little future interest to anyone beyond immediate family members and social historians. Families all over the world lead similar lives of tangled emotions, bittersweet regrets, everyday triumphs and random tragedies. But this is not exactly news, and certainly not riveting cinema.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival screening, August 6
Production company: Xstream Pictures
Cast: Cast: Yu-zhu Ye, Di-jin Song, Yuan Song, Fang Song
Director: Fang Song
Producer: Zhang Ke-Jia, Fang Song
Writer: Fang Song
Cinematography: Dong-pei Guan, Wen-cao Zhou
Editor: Fang Song
Sales company: Xstream Pictures
Rating TBC, 91 minutes