Many traditional customs and practices have fallen out of favor or even been actively discouraged in contemporary China, but it seems to artist and filmmaker Yang Pingdao like all the really annoying ones still apply in full force. After his father’s tragically premature demise, many family responsibilities were inherited by Yang as the oldest son. As a result, he witnessed his grandmother’s final days from an uncomfortably close vantage point. Her death and the birth of his daughter are the two poles that define Yang’s The River of Life (trailer here), which screens as the opening film of the China Now: Independent Visions film series, presented at Vancouver’s Cinematheque in conjunction with Cinema on the Edge.
In accordance with tradition, Yang and his uncles shuttled his grandmother back to her grandfather’s house in her hometown as the inevitable approached. It was a painful trip Yang wishes he could undo. Unfortunately, pain and regret are part of his family’s reality. For the last thirteen years, she has mourned and tormented herself over his father’s early death. Their timing has also been terrible. Due to another grandparent’s passing, Yang was not able to marry his wife, Wang Wenjing before the birth of their daughter, lest they offend the spirits.
Stylistically, River seems to be three parts fly-on-the-wall documentary and one part performance art. Yang captures some dramatic family history in the making, including death, divorce, weddings, geriatric health issues, and grandparents who have had it up-to-here with their grandkids’ generally brattiness. Yet, there are also absurdist intervals, including Wang’s constant accusations he is carrying on an affair with an old class mate. From what we can see, these seem completely unfounded, but Yang is the one directing, shooting, and editing this affair.
Even if the husband-and-wife sequences are knowingly improvised (as we so hope), Yang’s family portrait is still quite compelling, both for their uniquely neurotic specifics and the macro challenges they face in today’s unsentimental go-go China. At one point, Yang and Wang explicitly compare the archetypal bogeyman child-snatcher from her nightmare to the government stooges who used to enforce the One Child policy with perverse zeal. It’s a strong image, but also perhaps something of a metaphor for the menace lurking below the nation’s modern façade.