Another flick shines light on the problems faced by the elderly

Updated: 2016-11-03 07:38

By Xu Fan(China Daily USA)

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Hot on the heels of A Simple Life (2012) and Happiness (2016), another art-house film is portraying the aging population struggling with sickness and loneliness.

The Song of Cotton, adapted from Chinese American novelist Ha Jin's novella A Pension Plan, was previewed on Sunday and will be released across the country on Nov 4.

An America's National Book Award winner, Ha wrote A Pension Plan in English and translated the short story - featured in his 2009 book A Good Fall - into a 10,000-character Chinese version.

Among the few Chinese authors writing in English, Ha is known for his in-depth examination of immigrant conflicts and contemporary China.

But to make the film resonate with a domestic audience, the background for A Pension Plan - a Chinese immigrant neighborhood in the United States - is changed to Beijing in the movie, and the tale is expanded, says Zhu Yuancheng. The 33-year-old director is a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, a cradle for filmmakers and celebrities.

For his films, Zhu favors realistic subjects in a rapidly changing China, which in some senses reflect urban-rural conflicts and women's rights.

But in the film in question the storyline is heartwarming.

In the 90-minute movie, Mr Sheng, an elderly widower suffering from Alzheimer's, develops a close connection with his caregiver Mianhua (Cotton), who has experienced a series of misfortunes, but sees hope thanks to Sheng's encouragement.

"Every person grows old one day. But will there be someone to accompany you until the end?" asks Zhu, explaining the message he wants to convey.

Through the film, based partly on memories of his childhood spent with his grandparents, Zhu hopes to raise public awareness about the elderly, as well as other social problems.

Official statistics show that China has a large aging population, with up to 222 million, or 16.5 percent, over 60 at the end of 2015, says Wang Hongwei, the film's consultant and a professor at the academy.

"But only a few films feature this group and talk about their problems," says Wang.

Calling the loneliness experienced by the elderly "a dilemma" for them as well as their adult children, Wang says that economic stresses and the fast pace of big cities force people to work and ignore their parents.

Meanwhile, despite its serious theme, the film also has its light moments. For instance, in one scene Mr Sheng sleepwalks to Mianhua's bed, scarring her, but his mumbling about his love for his deceased wife touches the latter.

In the film, Sheng is played by 80-year-old actor Wang Deshun, known for the fantasy hit Miss Granny. Mianhua is played by award-winning actress Yan Bingyan, hailed as an "indie movie goddess".

So far, the film, which has been released at several movie festivals, has garnered many accolades, both at home and abroad.

At the 19th Shanghai International Film Festival in May, the film bagged four awards, including best actress and best newbie director.

In September, the film won the best screenplay award at the 1st Italy China Film Festival.

But despite the critical acclaim, most such films struggle to make it commercially.

The late director, Wu Tianming's Song of Phoenix, a film based on a suona (a Chinese double-reed woodwind instrument) player had to rely on producer Fang Li's sensational "kowtow" to win more screenings.

Then, there was the Berlin International Film Festival's Silver Bear-winning Crosscurrent, which raked in only 200,000 yuan ($29,500) at the box office at its premiere, while most commercial hits easily surpass 10 million yuan on the first day.

But despite the dark clouds looming for art-house films and the view that "it is the best era for films, but also the worst time for art-house titles", the cast of the movie believe a good tale can succeed at the box office.

As Yan says: "I still believe art-house films have their charm."

 Another flick shines light on the problems faced by the elderly

Actor Wang Deshun, 80, plays Mr Sheng in The Song of Cotton. Provided To China Daily

(China Daily USA 11/03/2016 page7)