Reviews Short Narrative

Lost Father (2013) – 3 stars

Director: Wanti Liu

Writer: Wanti Liu

Cast: Hanshanks

Running time: 26mins

Tyranny pisses me off. How can one fully critique a film made in mainland China? The thought occurred to me after watching Wanti Liu’s well-crafted short narrative: Lost Father.

Ever since Chairman Xi gave himself the status of a god and gave the world the truth encapsulated in the Stalinist necromancy of the Chairman’s Four Great Things; life has got a bit dodgier for Chinese artists. Given the party’s panoptic eye, no doubt the pages of the IFL are required reading for the hacks of the Communist Party of China – so anything I write here might have repercussions for a filmmaker based in China.

OK – things might be easier for the reviewer if the film in question were, say, a nature documentary or a romantic comedy. However, the subject matter of Lost Father touches on a sensitive area for the CPC – the care of the elderly. Bearing the consequences of the CPC’s sensitivities in mind, this review will concentrate on the technical aspects of the filmmaking and omit any attempt to look at any socio-political ramifications that the film might or might not have.

Lest it be thought that I live in a Panglossian perfect world of free speech, we, in the UK, do, occasionally get a taste of life in a totalitarian system when our absurd monarchy marks a royal death or coronation or when everyone appearing on the visual media at a certain time of the year wears a red poppy badge to commemorate our brave servicemen and women. Surely, there must be some cowards serving or having served in the armed forces.

Director and writer Wanti Liu opens Lost Father with a scene that challenges and discomforts the viewer. The setting is an urban bus station and on one of the benches an old man is wetting himself. We assume that the man has dementia as he has taken a toy gun from a child sitting nearby and is shooting the gun and laughing inanely. The illness has turned a man back into a child.

Wanti Liu realises the scene effectively – it shocks us and sets the narrative in motion. The old man, the eponymous Lost Father, is accompanied by his son, played by Hanshanks. The son is, in a fine detail, carrying a giant box of diapers – an essential travel aid if you are accompanying a demented incontinent person on a coach journey. The son, embarrassed by his father’s purloining of the child’s toy gives the child’s mother some money. In another nice touch, Wanti Liu has the son apologise to the mother on behalf of My Uncle – the kind of white lie which will be familiar to anyone who has experienced caring for loved ones suffering from dementia.

The director then hits us with a true shocker – the Son abandons the Father. We see Hanshanks giving the old man the box of diapers – he then leaves him alone in the coach park and sneaks onto a coach. The coach departs and we see the Father as the Son would see him – through the coach windows – shuffling aimlessly, clutching the box of diapers.

We are up, and, in the Son’s case, very much running. What follows, right up to the movie’s resolution, has a myth like quality as if the plot had been adapted from a folk tale. On the coach, the Son is befriended by a huckster, shaman figure who wants to tell his fortune. Later there is denunciation and ritual humiliation by the community. Three drunks, there are always three, cross the Son’s path. Finally, there is a resolution in the spirit world.

I enjoyed the way that the director shot the movie in a straightforward realist style. They also showed a lot of confidence in the power of the narrative by eschewing the use of any music soundtrack.

A small point of irritation is that only one actor, Hanshanks, is credited in the submission. A pity – because the actor who plays the huckster puts in a remarkable performance – the character is supremely repulsive – the actor manages to evoke all our worst fears as to who we might sit next to on a long coach journey. It would also have been useful to have known the name of the actor playing the Father – another strong and credible performance. On reflection, I suppose there is the possibility that the director used a real dementia sufferer for the part and needed to protect their anonymity.

Running parallel to the folk tale, Wanti Lui sketches out Hanshanks’ backstory by snatches of mobile phone calls – the mobile phone then intersects back with the folk tale as possession of the ability to communicate with the outside world becomes a key plot device. Through the phone calls, we learn that the Son is leaving the Father to get married, and that the marriage will involve some upward social mobility.

The backstory is needed because we learn very little from our observation of the Son who is on screen for almost the entirety of the movie. The director has Hanshanks play the role in a lugubrious tell the audience nothing about yourself manner. The only glimpse of affect or character we get is from a phone call with the fiancée where the Son comes across as controlling and somewhat unpleasant. Portraying a mildly nasty and boring character as a (failed) carer of a dementia sufferer is an interesting and bold choice by the director – it takes us away from the sainted carer stereotype. The problem here is that without any interior monologue you would have to have an actor with an incredible screen presence to take the audience with them and, sadly, Hanshanks is not up to the task. About half-way through, the task of speculation as to the Son’s inner life became pretty wearisome and the character simply irritated.

I do not at what stage in their career Wanti Lui is at but with Lost Father they have produced a credible and, in many ways, brave piece of indy cinema. To be able to tell a folk tale for the most part successfully in a modern idiom is no small achievement. Unless the world population is drastically reduced by climate catastrophe, pandemic, or warfare, the problems that Wanti Lui explores in how we look after the increasing number of dementia sufferers in an ageing population will affect every one of us. It is such a pity that, given the cold winds of power and politics, it might not be safe for the filmmakers if I were to further examine what Lost Father may have to say about dementia care in the idyllic world of Chairman Xi.

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