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DEAREST (2014)

Vicki Zhao in Peter Chan's Dearest.

Chinese: 親愛的
Year: 2014  
Director: Peter Chan Ho-Sun
Producer: Jojo Hui, Peter Chan Ho-Sun
Writer: Zhang Ji

Vicki Zhao Wei, Huang Bo, Hao Lei, Tong Dawei, Zhang Yi, Kitty Zhang Yuqi, Huang Jianxin, Yu Ailei, Li Yiqing, Yuan Zhongyuan

The Skinny: Peter Chan’s kidnapping drama shifts from predictable outrage to unexpected ambivalence, with moving and thought-provoking results. A flawed yet worthy film with strong performances across the board, especially from Vicki Zhao as the woman who may or may not be a kidnapper.
by Kozo:

Peter Chan’s kidnapping drama Dearest roars out of the gate, and powerfully engages before sputtering towards a frustrating, inconclusive end. Along the way the film remains involving and immediate, but the fact that it doesn’t stick the landing makes it initially disappointing. However, Dearest deserves far more credit than that. Based on a true story, the film centers on Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo), a divorced father in Shenzen who lets his son, 3 year-old Pengpeng, run off to play with neighborhood kids only for Pengpeng to get abducted. Wenjun and ex-wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) quickly mobilize to search for Pengpeng, but to no avail. Three years later, after many false reports and attempted scams, Wenjun hears that a boy suspected to be Pengpeng is in a small village in a remote province. Working with Xiaojuan and friend Han Dezhong (Zhang Yi), Wenjun snatches the boy and runs. But the boy screams for his mother, Li Hongqin (Vicki Zhao), who gives chase along with the rest of the village.

The first half of Dearest details Pengpeng’s kidnapping and the subsequent years, as Wenjun deals with numerous hoaxes, including one incident where he jumps off a bridge into a river to escape scammers trying to steal his ransom money. Calmer moments involve Wenjun and Xiaojuan attending a support group, led by Han Dezhong and his wife Fan Yun (Kitty Zhang), for parents who’ve also had children abducted. The content in this first half is primed for waterworks, and the proceedings occasionally get histrionic, but Peter Chan keeps the tension strong and the emotions grounded. The first half closes with a large set piece – Wenjun’s attempted retrieval of Pengpeng – where the waterworks and wailing drama reach a crescendo. At this point, the material is effective while still qualifying as low-hanging fruit. The story taps into easy outrage up until Li Hongqin enters the picture, after which the narrative starts to fall apart. The focus on loss in the first half builds to a strong payoff, but the second half can’t keep that momentum going.

As the narrative sputters, more complex ideas and emotions get introduced. Previously, the story only dealt with parents who’ve lost children, but now it looks at an adopted mother who’s losing her adopted son – and whose kidnapping she may even be involved with. On his end, Pengpeng must acclimate to a father and mother who he can’t remember, while accepting that he won’t be returning to the woman he’s called mother for the past three years. Besides covering these main stories, the film digs deeper into the supporting characters. Xiaojuan toils to earn Pengpeng’s favor, perhaps at the cost of her new marriage. Han Dezong experiences both elation and bitterness at Pengpeng’s return, because while he’s happy for Wenjun, his own child was never found. Worse, if he and his wife want another child, they’ll have to clear it with the government due to the One Child Policy – and doing so requires that they willingly declare their first child to be dead. This is not light stuff.

The film also explores class issues with its focus on Li Hongqin, as she looks to gain custody of her daughter Jifang – whom Li Hongqin also did not give birth to (she claims that her late husband found Jifang abandoned in a construction site). Unlike Pengpeng’s situation, Jifang’s true parents are unknown, so she’s sent to an orphanage where Li Hongqin is barred from seeing her. Li Honqin engages the services of Gao Xia (Tong Dawei), a down-on-his-luck lawyer, but their fight to gain custody of Jifang meets an unexpected counterclaim, leading to a legal hearing that qualifies as the film’s climax. There’s tension in the hearing, but the story doesn’t exactly build to that point, and is nearly episodic in how it follows each character and their personal issues. Everyone has a story, and while there’s weight to each, some (like Gao Xia’s home life) feel extraneous. With the surfeit of characters and storylines – some of them left unresolved at film’s end – the second half ends up feeling unfocused.

What emerges, however, is a thought-provoking portrait of people living under the One Child Policy. The story adheres to the rule of law, in that the consequences of kidnapping – or having your child kidnapped – are never portrayed with artistic license. However, while the film doesn’t damn the system, it portrays the emotional cost as unfair and strikingly painful. Dearest opens up many topics and never fully addresses them all, a move that’s perhaps a script necessity (Yay, SAPPRFT!) but also one that hews towards a realistic outcome where justice is impossible. This material challenges the audience with its quiet social criticism and its complex problems and emotions. In covering unique situations with sensitivity and depth, Dearest rises beyond its movie-of-the-week trappings to something greater. There are debits, such as the unresolved situations, contrived plot turns and also a mawkish documentary ending showing the actors meeting their real-life counterparts. But if these were the compromises that Dearest had to make to tell its story, then it was worth it.

Performances are strong across the board, with extra credit given to Zhang Yi, whose intense Han Dezhong makes a fine contrast to Huang Bo’s despondent Wenjun. The MVP is Vicki Zhao, who’s riveting in the doubt and uncertain sympathy she creates. Li Hongqin is the film’s dramatic fulcrum – the unstable element that could spin the films towards pandering outrage or unsettling ambivalence – and Zhao walks that tightrope admirably. If Dearest is about complex and impossible situations, then Vicki Zhao is its conflicted heart. The film doesn’t coalesce well, and indeed some moments seem arbitrary or forced. Ultimately, Dearest works best in its strong details and their accompanying emotions, like the scenes in which Wenjun, after getting back Pengpeng, leaves his house late at night to throw out the trash. Each time he walks out with a sleeping Pengpeng slung over his shoulder like a bag of rice – a burden, perhaps, but one that Wenjun clings to dearly. Moments like these pack a punch that lingers. Dearest is far from perfect, but the emotions it elicits make it worthy of respect, and even admiration. (Kozo, 1/2015)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Edko Films Ltd. (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Original Soundtrack
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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