Taking the old tale of the country mouse hopping to the city and getting socked for a few rounds before finding a hunk of moral cheese, filmmaker Liang Ying rewires it with an internally bruising experience in Taking Father Home. The film follows son Xu Yun (Yun Xu), who at 17 is bent on one thing: locating, at all costs, his deserting dad and yanking him out of his Happiness Hotel room to come back home to fix the broken family. In the pursuit of his old man, the fragile Yun matures almost too fast and after meeting a few grownup Artful Dodgers, he returns savvy and (albeit tragically) accomplished. Stunning detail and discipline technically should please many who get a local’s point of view on what life is like in a rural hamlet along the Sichuan Province being gobbled by industrial growth as well as a well-weaved tapestry of a story. Audience tally shouldn’t break records, but the few that go will likely hold onto their stubs.
Carrying a basket of two white grown ducks with him and a crocodile-killing knife for protection, Yun is headed to the big unknown where he must adapt to the city rules and improvise. On a bus, the ducks quack-quacking, Yun meets a grifter named Scar who prefers to be called Uncle. Destitute, Yun and his ducks follow Scar. The elder literally holds the kid’s hand in crossing a busy trafficked street, and teaches him that a real man eats watermelon by taking generous bites. Realizing he can’t shake this kid, Scar decides to find him temporary quarters. But the offering backfires as the hole in the wall Scar scouts belongs to someone else and the attempt to squat the spot lands Yun at the police precinct, head anchored in his lap. Soon enough Yun is on his own, but not before another conscience-challenged good Samaritan—this time a policeman—lends his time to helping the kid find his wayward pops.
Bad things happen to good people in this film. Somehow, the teen just moseys onto the next obstacle. Lucking on a few leads, Yun is soon hot on his father’s trail. He roams to former addresses and listens up at a hospital where conveniently his younger half-sister is being treated. Meantime, the storm of the century is coming, and there are calls for evacuations on the overhead speakers. But Yun stays. And as luck would have it, so does his father—who is a hopeless landowner letting his new wife and daughter ride out the rainstorm on their own. Two goons are shaking him down just before Yun comes flying in with his blade to scare them off. People fear the desperate, and Yun is beyond ballistic at this point. What goes down cannot necessarily be relayed, as it would spoil the picture, but let’s say it’s not exactly what one would imagine. With nature—grim and maniacal— bringing a tempest, it seems fitting that man would react accordingly with his own fury.
For much of the film, the camera plays a character. The first frame, it stands in for Yun’s mother bitching at her son’s ridiculous ambitions to get his father or kill him if he resists. The camera faces up to the shirtless, scrawny boy who is trying to talk tough but is cut down as a “gluehead” by his mom. Other times, the camera stays back as so much happens off screen. The initial scene of the young man fighting with his mother but never seeing anybody but the teenager is powerful stuff. The point of reference is already off-kilter. The camera is going to force the viewer into the film and, for many, this could seem disconcerting. But it’s truly great. Takes a lot of discipline to pull this off. Add to this the clever scenes, teetering on screwball at times and symphonic at others.
The embers of this film still burn well after the credits roll. There is something breathtaking about seeing the world through the lens of a studied and sound thinker. The heart of this film is hard to pin down. There is youth coming of age while the remote spaces of farms and pastures become concrete forcing folks packing. It’s rather sublime. With the flood comes a sort of cleansing, but there are the remnants of the past that no flood can wash away, and the film pricks this finger and doesn’t let the wound heal right away. You’re forced to feel the sting long enough to know there is pleasure in the pain. But it’s painful nonetheless. And this film wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cast: Yun Xu, Xiaopei Liu and Jie Wang
Screenwriter/Director: Liang Ying
Producer: Shan Peng
Genre: Drama; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Running time: 120 min.
Release date: September 19