Thursday, March 5, 2015

Review - Be a Mother

March 5, 2015

Be a Mother – China, 2011

I hate having to repeat myself, but when a film as good as Be a Mother is treated so shabbily upon its home video release, it is nothing short of a tragedy. Presumably, the purpose of releasing a film on DVD or Blu-ray is to enable it to be seen in as many households as possible. This includes foreign markets, for if this were not the case, there would be no sense in spending any time or money preparing the film for international film festivals and investing in subtitles. It is unfortunate then that so little care actually went into to subtitling the film in English. Oh, there are subtitles all right, but no one with even a basic knowledge of English grammar would mistake then you piece of mind to work as correct English. It’s enough to make you wonder who actually did the translating, a person or a computer?

Knowing that the film has been so poorly subtitled will likely dissuade a large number of people from watching the film - it has certainly made me less willing to buy one of Cineplex Development Co.’s products - and this is unfortunate, for Zhong Yu’s film is both engaging and timely. It tells the story of a well-off married couple living in southern China who wants to have a child. This seems simple enough, but much is standing in their way. The man, Zhang Qing (Alex Fong), works in Britain and is often gone for months at a time; his wife, Fang Yun (Wang Pei), has a successful career as a news reporter, and she finds a sense of purpose in her job. There’s also the added weight of her three previous miscarriages, which have made her extremely hesitant to become pregnant again. A family friend suggests they try surrogacy, and they eventually hire a young woman named Li Yan (Qin Lan) to carry their child.

Given such a set up, one might reasonably expect a film in which characters argue passionately about the pros and cons of surrogacy and debate its morality. However, to the film’s credit, it is neither for nor against the practice. It is simply about one family who turns to it and the consequences of that individual decision. It should not be read as a commentary on surrogacy in general. That said, what happens in the film should give couples contemplating it some added considerations.

After signing a contract that is probably not legally binding, Li Yan essentially becomes a member of the household. Yet just who is she in the family, and just what is her role? In certain scenes, she is like a trusted roommate, in others a housekeeper. As time goes by, however, she develops a relationship with Zhang Qing that is eerily similar to that of a traditional, loving wife, the kind that Zhang might actually enjoy having based on an earlier conversation we witness him have with a friend. Li even makes a point of waving to him after he has left the house. Writer Haiping Wang could easily have turned the story into one about a secret romance, yet he resists this, preferring instead to let the audience draw its own conclusions. It is the right decision.

As the film progresses, we get additional clues as to the complexity of the situation. For example, Zhang’s parents appear confused as to how to refer to Li, and in one surprising scene, they treat her better than their daughter-in-law. In another scene, Fang explains to Li the benefits of a mother’s reading to her unborn baby, and Li immediately agrees to do so, not realizing that Fang intends to read to the baby herself. In films such as this, writers often feel the need to make one of the characters less sympathetic than the others, and for some time, it looks as if Fang is to be this character. However, this is a smokescreen, for while the film initially builds this impression, it then systematically breaks it down, revealing a character far too complex to be fit neatly in a box either labeled hero or villain. In fact, while I admired all three of the film’s lead characters, I couldn’t help feeling a stronger amount of empathy for Fang, especially given all that happens in the film’s latter half.

Director Yu Zhong gets excellent performances out of his cast, and he demonstrates a knack for getting very telling close ups. In one, he brings his camera close as Li coaxes the married couple into putting their ears to her stomach. Then he focuses on the pained expression on Li’s face, one hidden from the eyes of Fang and Zhang. It is all we need to understand the conflicted feelings running through her. Zhong also uses nature and camera movements to convey time lapses effectively. In one scene, the camera focuses on a tree outside the family’s home, and the passage of time is conveyed through the changing colors of the leaves on the tree. He is less successful in his use of a Cupid statue resting on a fixture in the living room. The statue seems to change positions and expressions, yet its connection to the action taking place was vague, and I eventually gave up trying to interpret it.  

Towards the end of the film, it takes an unexpected and jarring turn. I won’t give it away, but I immediately felt it was a cop out, an example of a writer or director having boxed himself into a corner and needing an escape hatch. However, what followed it revealed a great deal; it exposed a tortured soul, an until then uninitiated quest for love, and a deep chasm between husband and wife. It truly represents a point of no return.

The film is said to be based on a true story, and if the details depicted here and explained briefly just before the closing credits are accurate, there indeed was no happy ending. This should come as no surprise, for if one thinks about it, a Hollywood ending would have been entirely unearned. This is a story that has only one realistic conclusion, and it is not the creation of a new, non-traditional family. By the end of the film, these characters have been completely undone by what has transpired, and to present that as anything else would be an insult to the audience’s intelligence. It’s nice to have a picture that recognizes that and isn’t afraid to show it. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars  

*Be a Mother is in Chinese with some of the worst English subtitles I have seen in some time.

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