the orphan of anyang (2001)


director: wang chao

sun guilin, zhu jie, yue senyi

One day, someone will explain why the Chinese government, an authoritarian if no longer quite a totalitarian state, permits films like Wang Chao's The Orphan of Anyang to be made, films built around an unwavering and unhysterical depiction of the harshness of Chinese society undergoing painful social and economic change.

The plot is simple: Dagang (Sun Guilin), an unemployed factory worker, finds a baby at a noodle stand with a note promising to pay anyone who'll take care of it. After awhile, he and the mother, a prostitute named Yanli (Zhu Jie) become a kind of family, but their brief moment of domesticity is threatened when the baby's father, a dying gangster called Boss Side (Yue Senyi), whose impending death persuades him that he needs an heir. What happens after Dadang confronts Boss Side is somewhat ambiguous, but by this point the movie has made its point.

Chao's camera lingers on his three characters for long, unblinking takes, while they do little but sit in silence, eat, or smoke. He seems to want us to absorb every detail of the scuffed, dirty, run-down urban setting, and imagine ourselves in their skin by gazing at their hunched, desperate postures or the palpable weariness in their eyes.

The first third of the film is something of a lesson in modern Chinese economics, as we learn how much everything down to a bowl of noodles costs. Like poor people everywhere, Dagang and Yanli are playing a zero-sum game, whose predictable outcome Chao manages to conceal for the brief time that they discover some semblance of happiness. The baby who gives the film its title goes from being a mere prop to a plot device to a symbol of that happiness and a cramped, guarded kind of hope.

Every year for over a decade, it seems like China has produced yet another young director of obvious and immense talent, and Chao, onetime assistant to Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, The Emperor and the Assasin), is the latest hopeful. Where that talent will go is anybody's guess, and like the orphaned baby in his film, everything depends on where China is headed.