The unassuming setting of the family dinner table is where we spend most of our time during A Dog Barking at the Moon (再見南屏晚鐘), the debut feature from director Xiang Zi. Even as her semi-autobiographical film darts in-between different period settings to slowly reveal more about her family’s history, we once again return to the claustrophobic confines of the dinner table – where every interaction becomes increasingly laced with dread, the curtain being pulled back more to reveal secrets that complicate any of our preconceptions. To put it simply, if you thought spending time with your own family was awkward, you haven’t seen anything yet.
In a time when the Chinese government are increasingly cracking down on any “taboo” subject matter in the country’s films, going so far as to recall finished features from international festivals so as to not project a negative image of the country, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Zi’s debut is still doing the festival rounds. Her family drama doesn’t just sink its teeth into closeted homosexuality and the casual homophobia ingrained within every conversation, but dares to grapple with Buddhism and the cult-like nature of organised religion, subjects Chinese filmmakers are increasingly afraid to touch. That she managed to do so in her debut, filmed while she was heavily pregnant and edited after she gave birth, shows that she is a fearless filmmaker who is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Nan Ji stars as Huang Xiaoyu, whose memories of childhood come flooding back when she returns to Beijing after a successful career in New York. Through the non-linear structure, we discover that when she was a child, her mother (Naren Hua) caught her father (Wu Renyuan) getting intimate with another man. Instead of getting a divorce, the pair decide to stay in a resentful marriage, which has ramifications for decades to come – by the time Huang returns from New York with her western husband in tow, she discovers her mother has become part of a religious cult she’s passing off as mere Buddhism. But these radical teachings have created a greater rift, that causes Huang to worry for the safety of her mother, and her family as a whole.
A Dog Barking at the Moon (再見南屏晚鐘) was this year’s winner of Berlin’s Teddy award, and will be continuing its festival run at this year’s Outfest. The festival circuit success is something of a pleasant surprise, due to a structure that rewards patience as it slowly teases out the full scale of the rifts between the family – it’s not a conventional crowd pleaser by any stretch of the imagination. But the sheer bravery that led to this singular art film getting made, even telling the Chinese censorship board the affair was with a “lover” (not disclosing the true nature of the relationship) in order to secure necessary funding, shows how passionate Xiang Zi was about sharing her story, warts and all. It’s a gamble that has paid off, even if it may lead to a number of new hurdles next time around.
The autobiographical nature means that it’s often too narratively specific to warrant any comparison, but as for Zi’s assured directorial style, the very purposefully agonising slow takes capturing the haunted minutiae of daily life are likely to lead to comparisons with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. After all, both focus on matriarchs who are slowly falling apart in their family lives, the biggest revelations manifesting in the quietest moments around the dinner table, sometimes without a single word of dialogue getting spoken. Naren Hua excels as Huang’s mother Li Jiumei, perfectly nailing the obliviousness at being indoctrinated into a homophobic cult, showing how these teachings have acted merely to numb her from a loveless marriage and a non-existent relationship with her wider family. It doesn’t quite lead to as significant of a gut punch ending when placed next to Akerman’s arthouse masterwork, but it does lead to the same anguish at realising a hidden desire, and the horror of trying to avoid it complicating the simplicity of repressing any semblance of emotion.
A Dog Barking at the Moon (再見南屏晚鐘) isn’t perfect; at times the structure can lead to some sequences feeling opaque in terms of the larger drama, and the surrealist moments sit somewhat awkwardly next to the slow burning long takes of the intimate family moments. But for the most part, it’s a bold, brave directorial debut that marks Xiang Zi as a filmmaker with a bright future ahead of her.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Acorn Studios