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The Postmodern Life of My Aunt

(left) Chow Yun-Fat and Siqin Gaowa, and (right) Siqin and Vicki Zhao.
Chinese: 姨媽的後現代生活
Year: 2006
Director: Ann Hui On-Wah
Producer: Yong Er, Zhang Wang
Writer: Li Qiang, Ann Hui On-Wah, Yanyan (original novel)
Cast: Siqin Gaowa, Chow Yun-Fat, Vicki Zhao Wei, Lisa Lu Yan, Guan Wenshou, Wang Ziwen, Shi Ke, Fang Qingzhou
The Skinny: Ann Hui's latest is intelligent and engaging, but predictable and ultimately unfulfilling. This is an easier film to appreciate than enjoy, and may disappoint audiences looking for something a little more uplifting. Nevertheless, the strong performances, fine art direction, and underlying humanity make this one worthwhile.
by Kozo:

The Postmodern Life of My Aunt doesn't possess much of a plot, but it isn't supposed to. Director Ann Hui's surprising comedy-drama isn't a driven narrative; instead, it's an episodic look at an aging single woman, as she finds her comfortable Shanghai-set life slowly and inevitably slipping beyond her reach. We first meet Ye Rutang (Siqin Gaowa), the eponymous aunt of the title, when she picks up her nephew Kuankuan (Guan Wenshou) at the train station. Rutang is loud and brassy, and probably more than a little annoying to her embarrassed nephew. Kuankuan's stay with his aunt introduces both he and the audience to Rutang's unique existence. She lives alone, disdains her nosy neighbor Mrs. Shui (Shaw Brothers veteran Lisa Lu), owns a flock of birds that she sets free in the apartment daily, and is - above all else - fervently alive. We may not cotton to Rutang's personality, but she's a person with a righteous and admirable will.

However, that will soon gets tested. Kuankuan befriends a disfigured young woman (Wang Zhiwen), and decides to help pay for her surgery by conning Rutang. He arranges his own kidnapping and attempts to wring money from his tightfisted aunt, but the results of his scam are surprising, and even a little funny. Rutang meets one colorful character after the next, and each person has a unique and sometimes questionable story. Rutang hires a new domestic helper named Jin Yonghua (Shi Ke) after seeing her bleeding in a local noodle restaurant and taking pity on her. However, Yonghua has a complex life; her baby is seriously ill and has been hospitalized, and Yonghua has creative methods of making money on the side. Rutang also meets roguish amateur opera singer Pan Zhichang (Chow Yun-Fat, in an entertainingly broad performance), who charms her over lunch and proceeds to scam her for a small sum of cash. After a later chance meeting, the contrite Zhichang befriends Rutang, and the two begin an entertaining and poignant courtship. But Zhichang comes up with a unique moneymaking scheme - they'll invest in funeral plots - and invites Rutang to be a part of it. Is Zhichang really trying to help Rutang, or is this yet another scam?

Ye Rutang encounters plenty of conmen in Postmodern Life of My Aunt, among them acquaintances, family members, trusted individuals, and possibly even herself. There's entertainment value in watching each character display their inner ugliness, but all the conning also reveals China's rapidly changing values. Throughout the film, Ye Rutang is portrayed as a righteous and dignified woman, who will call the cops to bust a street vendor for littering, but will also stand up for family members who've committed minor crimes. Her principles are admirable, but she's apparently a bit of a relic. She clings to older, more innocent values, while the people around her have become impersonal, sometimes sacrificing others just to make an extra buck. Still, the filmmakers compassionately reveal the characters' humanity in the process. People are dishonest and greedy, but they're also human and identifiable, and none of them can truly be classified as "bad people".

Postmodern Life of My Aunt is seen largely from Ye Rutang's point of view. She may suspect that some of her trusted friends are using her, but the truth is not always known. However, the feeling of possible betrayal - along with its accompanying loneliness and despair - is enough to affect her. Siqin Gaowa turns in a fine performance as Rutang, giving her a strong, memorable personality that's colorful without being a caricature. She also gives a measured physical performance; Ye Rutang is animated and lively at first, but as the film progresses, her expressions and posture grow weakened and weary. The weight of the world seems to be falling upon Rutang, and as she goes, so does the film. At first, Postmodern Life of My Aunt sometimes resembles a fantasy, with bright, eye-catching colors and a score by Joe Hisaishi (of numerous Studio Ghibli film) that evokes wonder and life. Ann Hui's Shanghai is simultaneously deglamorized and also idealized. We don't see the gleaming, tourist-friendly Shanghai here, but Ye Rutang's local haunts are given generous, affectionate focus. To Ye Rutang, Shanghai is home, the place where she feels most comfortable and desperately wants to be. Initially, it seems Rutang's vision of Shanghai is true; it does seem like a wonderful place to be, and the art direction and score make it seem as attractive to us as it does to her.

All that changes, however, as the film progresses. Rutang's life takes a turn for the worse, and the film eventually changes locales, from lively Shanghai to stark, dusty Manchuria. Ann Hui reveals in her typically opaque, sure-handed style, letting the audience observe instead of feeding them meaning. Ye Rutang initially withstands the difficulties she faces, but eventually it all gets to her, turning the film from an ironic comedy-drama into a melodramatic downer that may turn off the people who decided to plunk down their cash to see the movie in the first place. Marketing for Postmodern Life of My Aunt is a bit puzzling; the posters for the film are either bright and lively or disingenuously zany, and seem to promise a witty comedy of manners. The film defies expectation, however, becoming more and more unfulfilling as it progresses. Characters grow from charming to suspect to sometimes unlikeable and even bothersome. It's a tough journey for any filmgoer, and Hui's hands-off touch doesn't make it easy to get involved with the characters. When Vicki Zhao shows up as Ye Rutang's estranged daughter, the film has already begun a downward spiral of unhappy emotions. The common reaction may be to ask what it all means.

Well, it clearly means something - in fact, that meaning can probably be gleamed only forty-five minutes into the film. Once Rutang has met her second conman, a pattern seems to emerge: she meets a person, gets taken in, gets screwed over, and her existence seems to dim a little bit each time. Ultimately, nothing about life seems as nice as it does in reflection, a thought that makes Rutang's destiny bittersweet - though the scale certainly tips more towards bitter than sweet. Even the film's key revelation, which partially explicates one character's need for rose-colored glasses, just piles on the gloom. The only hope seems to lie with Kuankuan, whose maturation still promises hope, though one wonders if his life won't become as desperate as Rutang's. Ann Hui may be revealing some truths with her pessimism, but there's little to celebrate in the revelation. Ultimately, it all just feels depressing.

Is that really a reason to knock Postmodern Life of My Aunt? That its happy colors may fool the unsuspecting customer? Possibly. Expectations play a large part in how one views a film, and if a person can't get what they expect then it's understandable if they're a little nonplused. Postmodern Life of My Aunt simply may not be meant for an audience with expectations, as viewing the film as a narrative can lead to disappointment. There's no real arc and no real ending. All we get is a slow realization that life, for all intents and purposes, is always better in the rearview mirror, and that sometimes virtue really isn't its own reward. That's hardly the stuff of feel-good moviegoing, but there's a humanity and a keen intelligence in Ann Hui's work that makes the film worthwhile. Despite the sometimes exaggerated irony, the film radiates humanity, and life, be it joyous and melancholy, is easily seen in the characters and their lives they lead. Hui seems to have brought a great deal of personal attention to the film, and it shines through in the affectionate, if not always flattering way in which she presents her characters. Postmodern Life of My Aunt may not be an easy film to enjoy, as the path it leads audiences down is not very friendly. However, appreciating the film is possible, and even deserved. (Kozo 2007)

Awards: 43rd Golden Horse Awards
• Nomination - Best Actress (Siqin Gaowa)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actress (Vicki Zhao Wei)
• Nomination - Best Adapted Screenplay (Li Qiang)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
2-Disc Special Edition
Universe Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

images courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen