The Loved Ones
By Andrew Chan

Memories Look at Me
Dir. Song Fang, China

One would be forgiven for feeling a twinge of resistance when the name Jia Zhangke and his Xstream production company logo flash across the screen in the opening titles of Song Fang’s Memories Look at Me, which was the sole Chinese selection in this year’s New York Film Festival. It’s not that Jia no longer has legitimate claim to being the brightest and most consistent star auteur mainland China has ever produced, or that his generosity in shepherding talented young directors over the past several years should go unnoticed. The problem is that, for a while now, he has so completely dominated critical conversation about this extraordinarily fertile national cinema, while essential but relatively under-the-radar careers like those of Ying Liang and Li Hongqi have yet to capture their due attention. Boasting built-in pedigree by virtue of her involvement with Jia and Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien (in whose Flight of the Red Balloon she appeared, serving as the principal Chinese presence), Song is as festival-ready as new directors come, and the loose attitude she takes toward documentary-fiction boundaries—a trope that has become de rigueur in contemporary Chinese cinema—will surely elicit yawns from cynics.

Too bad, since this patient, sustained portrait of familial love is a rare achievement in today’s art cinema, and the mixture of deep sensitivity and matter-of-factness with which it explores its subject is without precedent in either Jia or Hou’s work. Memories opens with a close-up that anticipates the film’s first-person perspective: a shot of Song in profile as she peers out of a car window, lost in baby-faced contemplation, gray sky and tall bridges gliding past her. But while the film’s adult female point of view remains obvious throughout, our expectation of a confessional tone is what the director seeks to subvert at every turn. A Beijing resident returning to Nanjing for a brief visit to her aging parents (the uneasily deducible duration of time has a dreamy looseness to it), Song and her backstory never move completely into the foreground, so that obvious plot points—her emotional state, what she does for a living, what led her away from her hometown—remain elusive. The trick is that this never feels like narrative coyness. Unlike so many other films that frame a family reunion as a means to an individual’s self-discovery, Memories is sincerely interested in chronicling the eccentricities of loved ones at a respectful remove by getting its protagonist out of the way.

Centered almost entirely on the meandering conversations Song shares with family members, who drift in and out of the small, sparsely decorated rooms of a middle-class apartment, the film does not follow Song as a more conventional homecoming film might. Instead of emphasizing the rift between the heroine and the past she is returning to, the sometimes furtive, occasionally soul-bearing exchanges Song bears witness to make us believe that love might be enough to sustain us after all. Memories is so convincing in this regard that it could be mistaken as an advertisement for the comforts of the heteronormative standard: a reasonably virtuous man and woman, who pass a lifetime together with good humor and mutual respect, get to enjoy the satisfaction of having begotten a child who continually seeks their affirmation.

The film relies not on a formula of revelation by way of confrontation, but on its own trust in old-fashioned eternal truths. How does a film that makes such an ideal out of constancy drum up enough conflict and ambiguity to be compelling? For its more melodramatic satisfactions, Song often yields the floor to the loquacious and plaintive matriarch, who wears her heart on her sleeve as she tells of past deaths in the family. One kitchen-table showstopper hinges on her mashing rice in her bowl with a chopstick, as both husband and daughter observe more with quiet reverence than an urge to console. More frequently, though, the film locates its sense of drama and unease in the gaze that shuttles between young and old, and in the love that heightens the moment-to-moment awareness of loss that lies ahead.

Song’s performance is key here. She doesn’t have much range as an actress (certainly not like her catharsis-prone mother), and her poker-faced expressions will grate on some viewers. But with her reticence she communicates the tug-of-war that can form between adult child and elderly parent, even in their most unguarded moments. In the one scene that verges on revealing personal details about Song’s character, the mother mentions her daughter’s solitary life in Beijing, hinting at her concern about Song’s lack of marital prospects. Through her stoic reaction, it suddenly becomes easier to understand the conflict at the protagonist’s heart. By merely existing in and being vulnerable to the world, the child is forever a source of pain for the parent, making the loving daughter’s eternal challenge one of protecting the older generation by keeping her inner life a secret, while at the same time maintaining intimacy by being sufficiently open with her emotions.

Chinese cinema has produced some great films about family that avoid the American habit of fetishizing dysfunction—Liu Jiayin’s little-seen Oxhide, which holes itself up in a claustrophobic apartment with a filmmaker and her dumpling-making parents, seems like an obvious inspiration for Memories. But it’s difficult to remember any recent film that spends as much time appreciating the physical details of parents’ aging bodies, from the silver hair to the papery skin to the familiar, complementary shapes an elderly couple sometimes makes while sleeping side by side. What emerges from all these lingering glances is a premature elegy, one that hides its obsession with mortality and time’s passage beneath a disarmingly placid surface. In lesser hands the film’s quietude could have played like a novice’s unearned appropriation of Ozu. Under Song’s masterful direction, though, we get to feel the heroine’s unshakable urge to freeze time within her gaze, an unarticulated source of suspense that keeps her cherishing but never fully living in the present tense.