In a late scene in Memories Look at Me, Song Fang's lovely, elegiac debut feature, Fang (played by Song herself), a young woman from Beijing visiting her parents at her childhood home in Nanjing, wistfully expresses to her mother her wish to go back to when she was seventeen. "I'd like to relive my life," Fang says. Her mother tries to dissuade her from this notion. "Sort yourself out in the present ... You've made your choices," her mother tells her. Their conversation turns to chilies growing outside their window; Fang remarks on how well the chili plants have grown. "People are no different," her mother answers. "People need nurturing. Or they don't grow." This scene illustrates a major theme of Fang's film: the weight our pasts put on our present circumstances, and how the intimacy of a familial environment can draw out feelings of introspection, sadness, and regret. Yet this can also bring one to serenity and peacefulness, if our family is a loving and nurturing one, as the family in Memories Look at Me very much seems to be.
In the opening scenes, Fang arrives at her parent's home, a tiny apartment in Nanjing, with something seemingly weighing on her mind, suggested by her pensive stare through the window of the train taking her there. Though at one point she cries briefly while speaking with her mother, and later indicates that she wishes she had made different choices in her life, we never find out what is troubling her. Fang's mysteriously unspoken concerns are the unsettling heart of the conversations she has with her other family members in the course of the film, which is mostly set in the interiors of this apartment. Most of the conversations concern events that have occurred in the past or otherwise off-screen. Death and illness is a frequent subject: family members who have died, or are on the verge of doing so. Fang's mother and other elder family members we hear in the film recall harsh and difficult struggles to survive that they have gone through in the past. There is very much the sense of two generations conversing with one another: that of Fang's parents, who went through China's Cultural Revolution, and of today's generation, represented by Fang and her brother, who also comes to visit. China has changed very much in the decades following the Cultural Revolution, and the younger people may have it easier, but it doesn't mean that they are untouched by struggle and anxiety. Fang's mother is especially concerned about her daughter's lack of her own family. "How long will you go on living alone?" she asks Fang at one point, clearly not wanting Fang to end up like another family member who passed away alone, having never married. This may be what is behind an earlier, amusing scene in which Fang's sister-in-law tries to set her up on a blind date.
Though Song was very clear at the New York Film Festival press conference that she conceived of Memories Look at Me in strictly fictional terms, she does make use of documentary details, by casting herself and her own family as the main characters, and by using family stories she had heard for the film. This sort of docu-fiction has certain affinities with some of the films of Jia Zhang-ke, a fellow Chinese filmmaker who co-produced this film. Song has acted before, as the film student who works as Juliette Binoche's nanny in Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon. Her character there is not dissimilar to the one she plays in her own film, an often silent observer of others whose inner life is kept very much under wraps to the viewer.
Song's rigorously minimalist style, set in small interior confines and consisting mostly of dialog, will definitely not appeal to those who prefer much more dramatic action. But Song's method reaps its own artistic rewards for those who are willing to go with her flow. She subtly varies her camera framing and editing juxtapositions to make the small space she uses to be visually interesting, and to enhance the intense intimacy of the events she observes. Song also impressively uses the sound design by Aya Yamashita to convey a vast world beyond the confines of this tiny apartment, a chaotic contrast to the much calmer and soothing life inside; loud voices, street traffic, and construction sounds dominate the noise we hear outside the apartment.
Memories Look at Me is one of my personal favorites of this year's festival; its beautiful sense of humanism and its quiet, serenely meditative qualities impressed me greatly. Song Fang lovingly illustrates with sublime artistry, through patient observation and intensely emotional intimacy, her idea that the dead can live on through the memories of those they have left behind.
Memories Look at Me screens on October 7 at 12pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the festival's website.
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