If Shen Dai had remained in China, there is no way an Isabelle Huppert-like film star ever would have been part of her social circle. In this case, it is probably safe to say “Isabelle” is based on Huppert, since she is played by the screen legend herself. That bit of casting was quite a coup for Hu Wei’s latest short film, but it never overshadows the complicated emotions at the center of What Tears Us Apart, which screens as part of Shorts Program 1 during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
There are indeed social-political implications to Shen Dai’s story that viewers might guess (especially if they are cognizant of the government’s strict family planning policies), but they still ought to let Hu reveal everything in his own due time. Initially, we are not sure why an older Chinese couple is visiting Isabelle and her gracious slightly older husband Benoît—nor perhaps are they. Eventually, we figure out they are really there to see Shen Dai and her daughter, but she prefers to have Isabelle and Benoît present to run interference. However, when the three finally sit down just themselves, the older woman’s emotions come gushing out uncontrollably.
As always, Huppert is a force to be reckoned with, but you will be hard pressed to see a more haunting performance than Nai An’s devastating portrayal of Shen Dai, in any film of any length. Clearly, her life in France has thus far been more comfortable than it would have been had she remained in China. Yet, we get a visceral sense of her lingering pain and resentment. Although more active as a producer, Nai An also gave a remarkably sensitive and powerful lead performance in Ying Liang’s When Night Falls, a film of such bold integrity it caused the filmmaker to be declared persona non grata in his Mainland homeland. As an added bonus, veteran French character actor André Wilms (Le Havre) nicely counterbalances the tart Huppert as the easygoing Benoît.