'The Return' ('Fu Xiang Xin'): Film Review | Shanghai 2019

Courtesy of Fortissimo
A heartfelt tale that strains to come alive.

The drama of Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeated soldiers who were stranded in Taiwan after the war gets a melancholy update in Qin Hailu’s directing debut.

The sad fate of the veterans who fought in Chiang Kai-shek’s army and who found themselves stranded in Taiwan after Mao’s victory in 1949, forever cut off from family and home, seems like a melancholy subject for a young director’s first film.

In The Return (Fu Xiang Xin), actress Qin Hailu, who starred in Fruit Chan’s Durian Durian, puts her heart into describing a handful of lonely, impoverished former soldiers who are in their eighties and basically waiting to die. Believable performances from veteran actor Chang Feng and a luminous Ge Lei (a.k.a. Grace Ko) sweeten the pill and help relieve some moments of ennui. The Fortissimo release bowed in the Shanghai International Film Festival's official competition.

With the army survivors thinning out each year, The Return has a quasi-documentary feeling in recounting their bleak lives in Taipei, whose ambitions are limited to squeaking by on a meager military pension and saving up for a funeral plot. Although these men are now able to return to mainland China, it is really too late to recover truncated family relations and old-time village life. Mr. Jiang (Chang) is 84 and one of these dreamers whose longing for his vanished home can never be satisfied.

Qin and her co-screenwriter Wang Xiaoli set much of the action in a cabaret dating from wartime and very much showing its age, to the point where tourists are herded in to see a "cultural heritage site." As expository dialogue awkwardly explains, it is one of the once-flourishing "red envelope" clubs to which the stranded soldiers gravitated like an expatriate community. Women singers in evening gowns sang nostalgic songs from their homeland on request, in exchange for a red envelope full of money, which the men tucked into their bras while they sang. Though not stated, one can imagine that higher sums led to more action later.

The ratty club run by the nice Madam Qin is on its last legs. So many of her old customers have died, there is barely any audience left for the young and not-so-young singers. One of them is Jen (Ge), a fortyish woman with very sad eyes. She has long been attached to Mr. Jiang and, much to her credit, she now looks after him with almost filial concern. She cleans his small house and shops for his food, making sure he has something in the kitchen for breakfast. In return, he orders her around in a crotchety voice. Underneath their bickering, one senses love. But when he sells every stick of furniture in the house to buy an elaborately carved casket with scenes of his homeland and starts sleeping in it, Jen is overcome with anger and emotion.

The unique relationship between Jiang and Jen is at the heart of the film, and the two fine actors add realism to it, yet one waits in vain for their emotions to touch the audience. One problem is the lack of a strong storyline to drive the pic; another is the puzzling editing, in which some scenes seem to be out of order. Both undercut the buildup of feelings.

Jiang is being treated for lung cancer, and it comes as no surprise to learn that his illness has entered a terminal stage. Instead of checking into the hospital as Jen wishes, he claims he wants to "go home," though what this means is not exactly clear. He has been out of touch with his wife and family in northeastern China for many decades. Most of his friends imagine that he will die in Taiwan and, like others before him, his ashes will be flown back to mainland China for burial by Madam Qin’s young assistant Xia, another surprisingly caring person assisting the vets. The final scene takes the story into clichéd emotional territory, though the actors somehow manage to end on a decently high note.

Ko-chin Chen’s cinematography never shies away from or tries to embellish the dark streets, unlit apartments, and neon-infested claustrophobia of the red envelope club and its tawdry honky-tonk neighborhood. The production design by Cai Jiahong pays great attention to detail, while Dong Yingda’s nicely melancholy score is used sparingly throughout along with the strains of a sweetly nostalgic period song, until all the stops are let out for the end credits as Jen belts out an empowering rock rendition of the tune.

Production company: Beijing Qimeiyinghua Cultural Media Co.
Cast: Chang Feng, Ge Lei (Grace Ko)
Director: Qin Hailu
Screenwriters: Qin Hailu, Yang Xiaoli
Producers: Li Feng, Kong Yangjun
Director of photography: Ko-chin Chen
Production designer: Cai Jiahong
Editor: Hsiao-Yun Ku
Music: Dong Yingda
Venue: Shanghai International Film and TV Festival (competition)
World sales: Fortissimo

109 minutes