The tenacious “Aunt” of director Ann Hui’s 2006 film is something of a middle aged battle-axe at odds with the ever changing sprawling city of Shanghai in which she lives (Ye Rutang played by Gaowa Siqin) we join her meeting her nephew Kuan Kuan at the train station. He soon finds his aunt to be something of a weirdo; she lets her birds fly around the flat, has an empty fridge and no mobile phone. Ergo he decides not only to escape her tenacious ways but also to fake his own kidnapping for financial gain. What happens thereafter to the poor Aunt are a series of tragic, events in which characters drift in and out whilst attempting to con “Aunt” Ye Rutang out of her money. For the first half of the movie these events are interspersed beautifully with comedy then things all get a bit too much for Ye Rutang and she retires to live with the afore-mentioned nephew in a smaller industrial town in Manchuria.
After the fake kidnapping incident she takes in a lodger, a girl who she found in a restaurant whose face had been cut by her boss at work. Sure enough this girl steals a vase and fakes being hit by a car deliberately dropping the vase in an attempt to get the driver to pay up.
Whilst out performing Tai-Chi in the park Rutang meets Pan Zhidang portrayed gloriously by Chow Yun Fat, they share a mutual interest in poetry and Peking opera. She decides to take him in and things are going great until Chow’s character invites Ye Rutang to pile her life savings in a cemetery plot investment scheme. When the graveyard company moves location Ye suspects foul play and the relationship is over.
I mentioned above that there are comedy elements to this movie, well, there are but like just about everything else in this movie even the comedy is tragic. The scene in which Pan Zhidang (Chow Yun Fat) accidentally kills the nosy neigbour’s cat is hilarious, when the neighbor then dies from a heart attack (read: broken heart from losing her only friend, the cat) it made me feel gut wrenchingly guilty for even having the nerve to laugh!
Another scene in which the dye on Rutang’s home-made red swimming costume bleeds into the water leading the onlookers to think she is on her period is also comedy genius. Perhaps it is the purely observational way in which director Ann Hui deals with the script that allows the events to be funny in the first place. Ye Rutang never breaks down, there are no angst ridden monologues in which she rants at the world rather she just quietly accepts the situations; the would-be crushing defeats. There are some brilliant directorial flares; a cut-away shot which shows brown leaves still hanging onto a tree, provides the perfect metaphor for an ageing woman struggling to keep hold of life in the big city. In the same way Gaowa Siqin’s wonderfully restrained performance contrasts dramatically with the plethora of loose cannons that she encounters throughout. Another thing I should mention is the stunning classical soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi (who also composed the scores for several Studio Ghibli flicks). Here the romantic score serves to provide depictions of the mundane with an incredible ethereal quality.
However, it is following Chow Yun Fat’s departure from the movie that things tend to get a bit slow. Whilst I appreciate Ann Hui’s lesson that life may indeed involve a dull winding-down, it is a structure with questionable entertainment value. When Ye Rutang’s estranged daughter turns to accuse her of walking out on the family, Rutang, perhaps out of guilt returns to Manchuria for a humble life of selling shoes on a market. There is a twinkle of hope in the form of Rutang’s nephew but that’s about it. Not to give too much away, which I don’t think I have, this is how the movie ends; with a sense of regret, things may’ve been rough in Shanghai but at least it was a lush and varied life. I think the latter, slower part of the movie could be appreciated as much as the rest, but as a viewer, the grim downturn might be better received with a bit of prior knowledge. Otherwise it’s an honest movie with fantastic highs and contrasting lows which overall are worthy of serious acclaim.
[Ed. Note; Podcast on Fire has taken the plunge into providing movies reviews from various Festivals across the United Kingdom. Full credit to Lantern Jaw for attending Visible Secrets]