The Old Barber (Ti Tou Jiang)



Shanghai International Film Festival

SHANGHAI -- Few Chinese films that deal with themes of aging, death and disappearing heritage celebrate life with so much zest and wry humor as "The Old Barber" by Chinese-Mongolian director Hasi Chaolu. Piecing together the recorded memoirs of a 93-year-old Beijing barber, Hasi asked his subject to play himself in a film where personal history more compelling than any fictional drama is seamlessly woven into a fictional narrative that flows as unobtrusively as documentary.

With its noncondescending attitude to a universal social issue, and a razor-sharp eye for the small pleasures and petty frustrations of ordinary life in beautifully composed locations, the film is accessible to both general and art house audience. It should enjoy a decent run at festivals with possibility of small scale theatrical release domestically and abroad.

"The Old Barber" can be viewed as a more contemporary companion piece to Ning Ying's "For Fun" (1993), a story about retirees who while away their boredom through Beijing opera that reflects the heady economic changes and socio-cultural marginalization in the Chinese capital.

Uncle Jing, the titular barber, paddles his bicycle-cart around his soon-to-be demolished neighborhood to offer near-extinct services to equally ancient clients. At regular mahjong games, he and his friends gossip about whose turn has come to bite the dust, as casually as swapping football scores. Discreetly, the old man goes about preparing for his own inevitable finale.

Though determined to get the most photogenic funeral portrait, the most solemn "longevity robe" and condense his life into a 500-word capsule obituary, he is comically thwarted at every turn. There is a surprising lack of morbidity as these events unfold. Rather, the elderly characters' preoccupation with "leaving the world in a clean and neat manner" stems from their aspiration to be dignified and self-sufficient to their last hour.

That the Mao suit which Uncle Jing intends to wear for his funeral has vanished from department stores, and his cherished antique clock cannot be fixed serve as metaphors for his, and the country's irretrievable past. Nevertheless, the film conveys a message of optimism. Uncle Jing's clock stops ticking, but he wakes up to the news of his great-grandson's birth.

Director: Hasi Chaolu
Writer: Ran Ping
Producer: Chen Guoxi, Hasi Chaolu
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating