One of the youngest film directors in China today, Joe Chow was in attendance during all the earlier screenings of directors-in-attendance Xiao Jiang and Xie Dong, and finally we get to see his debut feature film Shi Qi.
Joe was present to introduce his film to us, and told us of a few nuggets to take note of. There were some miraculous natural coincidences that heppened in the movie that dealt with the words "Shi Qi". One was in some stone markings which resembled the words in the title, which was captured in the film and used during the opening credits - just pay attention to the stone on the left hand side of the screen. Second was that during filming, the words also appeared as clouds in the sky. While this didn't make it to the movie, he had photographs to prove it did. Also, the little girl who lip synched through the recently concluded Beijing Olympics and caused a stir, was in the movie as well, serving as a cameo, way before she was chosen for that Olympian task.
But he didn't add that he had a cameo too as a tourist in the movie. See if you can spot him when you watch the film!
Watching the movies in the festival to date, it's quite amazing how the first or early films of the directors in attendance are of immense quality, and whilst Joe Chow may be the youngest in the country currently,
his Shi Qi definitely stood out as if it was a movie made by an assured veteran at the helm. Set amongst the She minority tribe, this film is essentially a mother and son story which I felt I haven't seen much of (usually father-son), and with the casting of Joan Chen, it's no doubt that her star factor would have helped piqued curiosity about this film.
At its core, it's about the said relationship between titular character Shi Qi (Sam Chow) who at the onset we see is at odds with his mother's perhaps stiffling upbringing, and one made complicated by Shi Qi being abandoned to foster parents when he was a toddler, and reclaimed by Mom when he was 10. To add fuel to the resentment, his foster parents have adopted his childhood friend Tian Yi (Vision Wei) instead, and watching him grow up with opportunities that could've been his own, just leaves a bad taste as he's stuck rooted in the village by Mom, and can't express his frustrations other than to rely on his talent for woodcarving.
Sam Chow breathes inner frustration in his role as the teenager yearning to see the world outside, and the deep profound unhappiness he festers toward his Mom. It's easy for teenagers to identify with this, given the living under the thumb and watchful eyes of a parent whom you know you're the center of the world to her. And when parents get in the way and in the process causing you to miss opportunities, you'd sure would raise a ruckus. So while living a sheltered life, Shi Qi decides to leave the village, even though he doesn't exactly know how.
What shone in the movie is the getting down to basics instead of trying to bite off more than it can chew, and through that sincere exploration of the relationship between mother and son, you're likely to see some parallels perhaps that would ring a bell on your own, at how sometimes we hurt the ones we love most without even realizing it. For the mom, her taking care of her son would seem to mean having him always by her side, though understood that she has lost him once, and would pain her if it happened again, thus her desperation in holding him back through some really adorable, and unworkable antics. And to the son fast growing up, his lack of acknowledgement toward his mom's good intentions, and his frequent brushing of her aside, would touch the hearts and make one feel guilty if one had done this insensitive act from time to time.
Joe Chow managed to bring out the anxieties of both characters in their road trip on foot over a period of two days, where they had to trek the picturesque mountainous road from village to the nearest town where the city bus plies. Along the way, this reaching out and connection come to a role play of sorts, with each character taking turns to lead, or to try and turn the tables on each other, finding something to connect, or to bridge an understanding. The movie relied tremendously on the chemistry between the two actors to pull this off, and they were excellent par none. The score was hauntingly beautiful, and the film also captured the seldom heard, and dying art of the She tribe songs and music, which added a documentary like dimension to the film.
Audiences here would likely be familiar with Joan Chen, especially when she had graced the screen in a number of local releases. Despite similar mother roles in movies such as The Leap Years, The Home Song Stories and even Saving Face which I enjoyed, she brings to the table different qualities in those motherly roles, but I dare say her performance in Shi Qi ranked the best amongst all. She truly brought out the adage that a mother's love knows no bounds, and I guess without a doubt, you'll see a lot of the general motherhood qualities here put under the spotlight, that will make you think through some of the things you would have taken for granted. Not to mention too the amount of nuances she put in the role, that would likely demand a repeat viewing (I smiled ear to ear when she quickly put her fingers to her ear when they retracted after touching a hot pot).
While it's a small movie in the sense that it doesn't have big set sequences, it's nonetheless one that packs a powerful emotional punch, and captured plenty of heartfelt emotions and sincerity in its story, that it is difficult not to fall in love with it as well. I especially liked the ending, which was sweet, and reinforcing the fact that blood runs really thick, with both characters emerging stronger.
What follows is an extract of the discussion between director Joe Chow and the audience, moderated by Liu Hui, Associate Professor in Shenzhen University School of Mass Communication, and naturally, some spoiler warnings should be in place:
Liu Hui (LH): How did you manage to engage Joan Chen for your movie?
Joe Chow (JC): I have to admit we were lucky and didn't think that we'd be able to secure her services. I am a fan of hers, and am also a Shanghainese. It was in Jasmine Woman that I thought that she had come a long way, and had a wishful thinking that she could be the mom in my film as well. Initially we approached Liu Xiao Qing, but she had requested for some changes to the story. Then we tried to approach Joan Chen when she was in town for the promotion of The Sun Also Rises, but she was busy and we only managed to pass her the script when she was on the flight back to the US. I got a call from her once she landed, and she liked the story and accepted it. It was so surreal!
LH: What about the locations that you've used?
JC: It's a story that could have happened anywhere. It was in Zejiang in 2006 that it was decided to film there because I realized there was a minority group called the She tribe ("She Nation" as subtitled in the movie) and there were plenty of beautiful scenery to shoot in. The tribe's music also captivated me, and it's something that's going to be extinct because only a few people amongst the tribe members know it now. So I also thought that the film could function as an archive for it. The songs are constructed using 8 characters per line, and up to 4 lines.
Some other information that Joe shared:
Joe revealed that the film was about giving the people you love what they want, not what you think they want. People are selfish by nature, and just the act of giving may not be sufficient. He also shared that he's currently working on a script for a romantic comedy, and in response to how much Joan Chen was paid to make this movie, he confirmed that it was a modest amount given their budget probably couldn't have paid what it shoud be, and she accepted it because it was also a project that she would like to work on.
The story in the beginning was different, and the locales became a major influence and elements being incorporated into the story. He had wanted to explore the what ifs when a young child gets kidnapped/given away, and years later, the real parents, now complete strangers, turn up and claim them back. Some of the interactions between mother and son resembled some of his own experiences, and he had intended to dedicate this film to all the mothers, and as an ode for his own mom as well when he can "remind" her not to be too stifling, that he had already made a film for/about her!
Q: Why wasn't there any development in having the woodcarving reflect his inner feelings?
JC: Actually there is, if you notice, he was always carving the figure of a bird, and finally, he gave it away to somebody else. So his desire to leave and fly away, has somewhat dissipated.