It’s been 15 years since Peter Chan’s released his masterpiece Comrades: Almost a Love Story to unprecedented critical and commercial success. Since then, Chan has dabbled in horror, war flicks, and lighter drama films. That said, Dearest stands out as his most complete film since he defined himself as a filmmaker with Comrades. It’s morally confronting, thought-provoking, psychological and subtly political, and a sudden departure from the string of mediocre films, redefining Chan as one of Chinese cinema’s most relevant exports. On the surface, Dearest is a film that investigates the mental state of mind after a child going missing; the total loss, desperation and emptiness of everything that follows. From the start, Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo) and Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) are presented as couple out of love, divorced and with one remarried, with their child Pengpeng one of the few things keeping them in each others lives. Already, it’s an unconventional set-up from Chan. This isn’t an idyllic portrait of life in China, it’s an already damaged picture with visible cracks in the frame. When Pengpeng goes missing and his two parents erupt and tension and anger towards both each other and themselves, it’s not deeply surprising. Nor is Pengpeng’s disappearance in the first place. From the opening scene it’s clear that the disappearance itself isn’t at the centre of Chan’s film. For those who are looking for a fast-paced detective thriller, Dearest is as far from it as you can get. It’s a slow-burning study of the myriad of relationships that human beings can have with grief as well as the structures that push people towards it.
In the wake of Pengpeng’s abduction, his parents are shown going through the typical signs of grief. They even attend a support group for parents who have lost their children, in Chan’s less-than-subtle attempt to push home the point of how frequently these abductions occur in the city. In one scene – where the support group chase a man they believe to be abducting a child only to find a monkey inside the bag slung over his back – the desperation and pain of the situation is made abundantly clear. In these earlier scenes in the film, Chan conveys the anguish of the parents well, although it isn’t the most cinematically fascinating thing to watch. It takes until halfway through the film – when the parents locate Pengpeng – that Dearest really begins to fall together as one of the director’s strongest works. The first hour of the film is devoted to locating Pengpeng, however, when his biological parents locate him, Dearest is flipped upside down.
It’s a two hour movie, although its climax occurs just after the halfway point. The scene where Wenjun and Xiaojuan find Pengpang and “steal” him back is painfully disorienting as the aforementioned biological parents force their son away from his adopted mother as he screams longingly towards her as she chases after them. For the rest of the film, Wenjun and Xiaojuan are thrown into the periphery, as is Pengpeng. The film isn’t about that anymore and Chan quickly establishes why he’s taken this approach. The man who abducted Pengpeng is dead. Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei) is presented as deeply unaware of where her late husband discovered Pengpeng. Unable to have children, Hongqin is positioned as having thought her husband had a child with another woman for her to raise, rather than stealing an already born child from its biological family. Despite this moral positioning, she is punished for her relationship to Pengpeng and is taken into custody.
Li Hongqin isn’t a typical villain at all. Chan is careful in his intricate characterisation of her as as much as – and by the end of the film, significantly more – of a victim as Wenjun and Xiaojuan are. Unlike Pengpeng’s biological parents, who speak Standard Mandarin, Hongqin is not from the same background and lacks the same education and support. In making Hongqin speak the Lower Yangtze Mandarin dialect, Chan is able present her as a lesser educated, poorer and more vulnerable figure than Wenjun and Xiaojuan. It’s in this nuance that the film reaches its most humanist commentary. For Chan, it’s clear that Hongqin is an examination of the class divides in Shenzen. Her love for Pengpeng is never questioned throughout; it’s as pure as anyone in the film. Despite this, everything falls apart for her in a slow-burning second half that evades cliche as well as the first. The loss of her daughter, whom the government take away after she is arrested for her late husband’s kidnapping of Pengpeng is the absolute conclusion to the bitter denouement of the film. That’s what makes Dearest Chan’s most memorable film is years; constantly dodging expectations and logical progressions, the director has built a painful and confronting character study that cuts to the heart of class divides in Shenzen.
While the film isn’t a documentary, the constant realism that punctuates its duration likely comes from the study into abduction that fuelled Chan’s work. The director was in contact with two families that had lost their children, one of which was found. In the Chinese cut of the film, the closing credits have a photo of the child that wasn’t found alongside the phone number of his father. Chan’s film is fiction, but this final part drives home the brutal reality of it all. Throughout Dearest, Chan breaks conventional trends in dramatic cinema and leaves with a far more affecting and powerful film as a result.
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