When a synopsis goes like “a natural blending of documentary with feature about a small family by a Chinese female director”, people might think of Liu Jiayin and her brilliant debut Oxhide (2005) seven years ago.
At a glance, Song Fang’s Memories Look at Me, crowned the Best First Feature Award at the 65th Locarno, echoes Liu’s approach but its tone, cinematography and emotional movements are quite different.
Usually, memory is a fragmented collection of the bygones.
However, when memories look at me, it means the memory is present, alive and breathing, like a personified figure and the gaze is on-going: the title of this film has already suggested a poetic touch between human beings.
When we see a running bus sits the director and leading actress Song Fang on her way back home, it rings the prelude to a travel from a larger urban space to a familiar cozy environment.
Her eyes are sparkling with expectation and a slice of uncertainty. The first scene back home with welcoming parents strikes me distance and politeness, quite rare in Chinese family documentaries – often full of conflicts and bickering.Such controlled emotions are almost visible through the whole movie, with few exceptions of laughter and tears.
Also different from most images of Chinese family life, this film stands out due to its traceless calculation and intangible elaboration.
There is not much talking between family members. Most of the time, the dialogue comes from daily actions: ear-picking, eyebrow-plucking, having meals, and her parents’ routine: daily siesta.
Song Fang knows verbs are the best representations of human beings and carrier of their relationships.
“Their facial expressions are never the same during sleep.” she added with a smile.
There is one scene that is so delightful that after days of watching, I am still amazed by its visual enjoyment: Song’s brother falls asleep upon his mother’s utterance “Don’t be (work until you are) too tired.” And Song, who sits beside her brother on the sofa, walks quietly out of the frame, leaving a light green cup on the table.
Unlike most of the active academy-educated independent filmmakers in mainland China, Song Fang had begun her study in filmmaking first in Paris VIII as an auditor for half a year and then moved to Brussels for another year as a registered student in INSAS, before she finally went back to Beijing and earned herself a place in the highly-selective MFA program in Beijing Film Academy.
Song Fang’s cinematic vision, however, is not blocked by this blossom of academia, instead, she adeptly knead her art instinct with the knowledge she acquired from the masters and the crafts she accumulated through her years of short film practice.
This film is the second feature produced by Jia Zhangke, in his Wings Project to support and promote talented young filmmakers in China.