‘Red Amnesia’ (‘Chuangru zhe’): Venice Review

Biennale di Venezia
A slow-starter that evolves into a haunting account of damages endured, inflicted and forgotten

'Beijing Bicycle' director Wang Xiaoshuai reflects on a generation whose confused relationship with the past gives them awkward footing in China's present

VENICE – As the title suggests, Red Amnesia considers the selective memory that erases past stains as contemporary China continues its frantic sprint to become a social and economic superpower. Wang Xiaoshuai's latest is somewhat bipolar, beginning as an unhurried mystery about the harassment of an elderly widow before abruptly switching gears more than halfway through to take an unsentimental plunge into the past. Combining elements of melodrama and thriller with a strong political subtext, this is a challenging work that guards its secrets closely but builds cumulative power.

The film represents a return to complex territory for the Sixth Generation director who first turned heads with the underground feature The Days in 1993 and then had his biggest international breakthrough with the neorealist homage Beijing Bicycle in 2001. Wang considers the new film the completion of a trilogy about the legacy of past social and political movements, following Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers.

The story's central character is the stubborn, elderly Deng, played with cantankerous charm and fragility by stage veteran Lu Zhong. Her complaints of receiving anonymous phone calls are initially dismissed by doctors and by her grown children as the product of an aging mind.

Determined to remain useful and reluctant to give up her role as the traditional caregiver, she barges uninvited and without warning into the home of her gay son Bing (Qin Hao) to cook for him, although she makes no secret of her disapproval of the way he lives his life. The casual establishment of his relationship with a male lover, and Deng's refusal even to acknowledge the other man's presence, are beautifully handled. Time spent with her elder son, Jun (Feng Yuanzheng), is made equally tense by the irritation of Deng's daughter-in-law (Amanda Qin), sparked by the old woman's intrusive manner.

At home in her shabby apartment, Deng complains to the ghost of her recently departed husband about her children's eagerness to shut her out of their lives and that of her grandson. During a visit to her dementia-afflicted mother at a crowded retirement home, she learns that new and future patients are signing up in droves as an entire generation shrugs off responsibility for their aged parents. Those scenes give the false impression that the film is about the sidelining of the old in the new China, a theme widely addressed elsewhere. But Wang has more interesting tangents to explore.

Both Jun and Bing defy expectations by urging Deng to come and stay with them when the mysterious prank calls persist, even more so when a brick is thrown through her window one night. Her pride and independence keep Deng in her own home, but her disrupted routines no longer bring her comfort. She's rattled at first when she catches an intense-looking young man (Shi Liu) staring at her on the bus and in repeat encounters in her neighborhood. But when he helps her on an errand, she invites him in and cooks for him, and the stranger sticks around, both physically and in Deng's dreams.

Wang keeps the audience guessing about the presence of the unnamed boy, and about the motive for Deng's continuing harassment. While the director blurs the lines between reality and imagination, it's obvious that the stranger represents a threat, and Deng becomes convinced he's a ghost there to remind her of an unpaid debt.

The pieces of the puzzle become clearer when Jun relays to his brother the tough choices their mother made to get the family out of factory-worker housing in the province of Guizhou and into the city at the end of the Cultural Revolution. But while Deng appears to have consigned those memories to the deepest recesses of her mind, a suspenseful journey of atonement in the film's concluding section brings the past vividly back to life.

Red Amnesia demands patience and close attention, but the well-acted drama's enigmatic spell creeps up on you as it transitions from portraying an obsolete generation, forgotten by its children, to excavating the complicated history that same generation has chosen to forget.

Production companies: Dongchun Films, Inlook Media Group, Herun Media, Edko Films, Gravity Pictures Film Production Company, Chongqing Film Group, 21st Century Media

Cast: Lu Zhong, Shi Liu, Feng Yuanzheng, Qin Hao, Amanda Qin

Director: Wang Xiaoshuai

Screenwriters: Wang Xiaoshuai, Fang Lei, Li Fei

Producer: Liu Xuan

Executive producers: Wang Xiaoshuai, Chen Xiangrong, Wang Qian, Bill Kong, Li Ruigang, Huang Xiang, Shen Hao

Director of photography: Wu Di

Production designer: Lou Pan

Music: Umeit

Editor: Yang Hongyu

Sales: Chinese Shadows

No rating, 115 minutes