Dearest  – An Intense Examination of a Nightmarish Scenario
The emotional weight of Peter Chan’s child abduction story Dearest (‘Qin ai de’, 2014) definitely hits us like a ton of bricks. There are melodramatic flourishes and scenes primarily designed to tug at our heartstrings, but at its best Dearest is an interesting examination of the abyss of despair experienced by parents of abducted children. Hong Kong film-maker Peter Chan also takes few jibes on mainland China’s controversial population control policy, rampant class prejudices and sexism. Director Peter Ho-sun Chan studied film in Los Angeles and for the past twenty five years has made number of Hong Kong-China productions. He was well known for making Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996), Perhaps Love (2005), The Warlord (2007), Wu Xia (2011), etc. Although Mr. Peter Chan films are entertaining, it doesn’t possess any staying power and is tad too melodramatic for my taste. Dearest, however, is an impactful work which efficiently places viewers in the characters’ precarious position, keeping its flabby sentimentality to minimum.
Dearest is the kind of ‘based on true story’ film where the story skeleton only represents partial truth as its narrative events are mixed with heavy dose of fiction. The film’s prologue chronicles the events leading to the abduction of energetic 3 year old Tian Peng (nicknamed Pengpeng). It was also the film’s formally brilliant sequence. The shot opens to display the cluster of unruly wires running through the dingy southern part of metropolitan city Shenzhen. Tian Wen-jun (Huang bo), who runs a internet café and convenience store in the area, is searching for his wire among the bunch to solve connection problems. He has previously tied a red ribbon to indicate his wire, but it’s lost. Soon, Tian is going to lose something more precious than a ribbon. Wen-jun’s divorced wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) drops off Pengpeng at the store. Since Xiaojuan has remarried, Wen-jun has the custody of their son. Hence, she argues with him over custody battle. A little later, Pengpeng runs off with his playmates as the father is distracted by the fight between two teenage customers. Director Chan observes little details – like the clock, a black cat, mislaid ribbon – to indicate the grave threat looming over the kid. Outside the neighborhood playground, Pengpeng dressed in bright yellow jacket is abducted.
It’s the beginning of the nightmare for Wen-jun and Xiaojuan. The chaotic search procedure and the bureaucratic red-tapes easily allow the kidnapper to get away with Pengpeng from Shenzhen (as the CCTV at railway station shows). While the mother alienates herself from others, the father devotes his time and every last penny to keep the search for his son alive. He turns himself into a walking placard, promising a hefty sum for providing clues to his son’s disappearance. But Wen-jun only receives calls from heartless con-men & women trying to lure him and steal the money. Wen-jun and Xiaojuan join a support group for similar bereft parents. All these parents suffer a lot to keep up the hopes for retrieving their child. Due to China’s one-child policy, the couples have to declare their abducted child as dead before having or adopting another child. One woman says that it’s only her insanity provoking her to keep on the search for the kid. Wen-jun breaks down when he recollects about the people who offered false tips regarding the whereabouts of his son. “As time passed the phones stopped ringing” he confides to them, further adding, “I began to think being conned wasn’t so bad. When people tried to con me, at least they offered me hope. Hope is like food and without it you die.” It’s one of the film’s most devastating moments which plunges deep into the character and brings out an emotional truth without sentimentalizing it.
The missing child support group is led by Han (Yi Zhang) and his wife. The wealthy couple who once lived in a secure, gated community has lost their little son. Three painful years later, Wen-jun receives believable news about his son’s whereabouts. He takes his ex-wife and Han to a rural area to confirm if it’s their Pengpeng. In a peaceful farm, they see a little kid dressed in yellow t-shirt feeding the chickens. This is when the film switches its gears. The boy is Pengpeng, but it is not the happy ending we expect. The meaty second-half of the film revolves around Pengpeng’s illegal foster mother Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei), a widowed, teary-eyed simple farmer. The boy is returned to his parents, although he doesn’t recognize both of them. Li Hongqin’s subsequent migration to Shenzhen and her chaotic existence at the metropolitan city reveals much more than the initially promised child abduction issue. It explores assortment of abuses and exploitation afflicting the Chinese society in its stride toward modernity. Although the script takes some melodramatic shortcuts, it is hard not to be affected by the brutal realities faced by the web of innocent characters.
Peter Chan’s shift in focus to Li Hongqin in the later half, perhaps make Dearest a clever social critique rather than being a weepy tale of child abduction. Up until the introduction of farmer woman’s character, the story is neatly divided into black and white. Of course, the film-maker doesn’t exploit the emotions of the parents of missing child. As i mentioned, he transgresses soap-opera elements to get to the emotional truth. In one sequence in the first-half, the members of missing children support group visit recently arrested criminals of a child trafficking gang. These criminals look very ordinary with terrifying levels of indifference and naivety. This earlier sequence demonstrates how director Chan plays with our expectations and later with Li Hongqin the narrative takes an 180 degree turn, inquiring beyond the boundaries of black and white. When screenwriter Zhang ji reveals the layers beneath the alleged good and bad, we scrutinize the devastating repercussions experienced by different set of people due to unsympathetic policies and wide-spread societal discrimination. From the directorial viewpoint — apart from the opening and tense mid-way sequences — the staging and execution isn’t very distinct. Yet, Peter Chan cements the proceedings with tight atmosphere of turmoil.
The three central performances are the major reason for the way Dearest moves us to the core. Chinese star Zhao Wei delivers the most heartrending performance as the victimized rural lady. She brilliantly depicts a parent’s fundamental urge to protect their children. Li Hongqin’s suffering easily makes us to draw parallels to the agony of Wen-jun and Xiaojuan. Zhao Wei imbues different emotions to variety of high dramatic scenes, which on the hands of lesser talented actor would have turned into insipid melodrama. Huang’s performance as Tian Wen-jun is soul-crushing. Hao Lei offers a very under-stated performance as the mother Xiaojuan. Watch out for the scene in which a smile creeps out of her face and joyful tears escapes her eyes when six-year old Pengpeng holds her hand. The two child actors were amazing. It’s very hard to contain tears when the orphaned little girl (Penpeng’s foster sister) makes eye contact with the mother through the orphanage’s glass window. The fascinating performances add as much to the emotive drama and its social commentary. One of the film’s biggest flaws is its neatly resolved ending. Moreover, the ending fails to resonate beyond the immediate conflicts within the story. The final situation for Li Hongqin only seems like a false hope (which doesn’t address the bigger taboo subject of children born out of extramarital relations). The ending is followed by photographs of real life subjects which are accompanied by their real names. This provoked controversy since the identity of real-life Li Hongqin was revealed (without her consent). The real woman has suffered mental disorders after losing her two illegally adopted children. Revealing her face and name was a totally indifferent act from Peter Chan and his crew (and the director has issued an apology). Although, it is mentioned that ‘some events are fictitious’ certain portions are too sensitive to be fictionalized without gaining her consent.
Dearest (128 minutes) is a tragic and emotionally cathartic tale which touches upon various social problems plaguing the modern Chinese society. Its premise is hard to forget and the excellent cast and script genuinely earns our tears.