In Wang Chao's Fantasia
, one family's struggle to overcome a personal crisis, inevitably worsened by the father's progressive terminal illness, serves its purpose as a catalyst for the director to weave a tale of seemingly great social significance. Even though Chao's gorgeously lensed little indie fits perfectly into the description of the Chinese new wave, its strangely familiar and often perfunctory narrative structure doesn't really make the picture a standout example of this increasingly interesting cinematic movement.
Zhao (Zhang Xu) is a loyal factory worker leading a peaceful life along with a loving wife and two children, until his world is completely shattered by a disease that causes him to underperform at work, which in turn leads to a very serious money problem. Desperation, anxiety and a strong sense of impending tragedy take their toll on the everyday proceedings, sadly paving the way for a rather clichéd turn of events. In order to make ends meet, all members of the family, in a more or less appropriate manner, try to come up with new ways of increasing the household income.
Though after every visit at the hospital Zhao tries to go back to work in high spirits, the man soon realizes he won't be able to cope with the disastrous thoughts regarding the sickness, but even more so with the stress caused by his coworkers' vicious attitude ('I wish I was sick', utters one of them after being laid off).
The mother, Tang Min (Su Su), is perfectly aware that selling newspapers on the street won't cover half of the medical bill that the Zhao family needs to cover, and decides to walk around the neighborhood asking for help. Then there's the adopted daughter, Qin (Jian Renzi), who transforms from a happily-in-love gentle young girl to a shameless waitress-cum-prostitute working at a local bar. There's much humiliation going on, but what's best about Chao's approach to his subject is that he never judges, but merely observes his characters. In the director's vision, questionable actions seem dramatically inevitable.
Hindered by abrupt cuts and lack of clear direction, the initially disoriented manner in which the picture follows its main players becomes more coherent as the story progresses. From the second act onward the narrative focuses mostly on the son, Zhao Lin (Hu Rujiie), and his puberty-related problems, obviously heightened by dad's illness and the in-school jokes readily addressing his already tough situation. The boy's routine strolls around the riverbank emphasize the picture's hidden beauty, as well as the restrained camerawork that adds elegance to every frame, composing a strictly delightful palette of local flavors. Picturesque shots of the Chongqing area almost make up for the storyline's faults and its unnecessarily undemanding pace.
In this slow-moving melodrama set against the backdrop of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, struggles of the working class and the issues they have to deal with on a daily basis are juxtaposed with the sudden gold-medal-related euphoria that, along with China's gradual economic rise, attempted to bring the nation together. Yet timeframe doesn't have much significance for the story, as the characters and social landscape don't carry any distinguishing features of that specific period.
The illusive title stands in stark contrast not only with the film's storyline but also with its subtle and realistic visual style. There's only one short, dream-like sequence in the whole film, curiously reminiscent of Denis Lavant's unforgettable dance scene from Beau Travail. It might be silly and over-the-top, but it plays its role accordingly: father's quiet death will soon be forgotten, as opposed to the country's astounding results at the Olympic games.
Although Chao's criminally underseen 2006 film Luxury Car still remains his most accessible feature to date, Fantasia might appeal to audiences closely following the development of Chinese independent cinema. Neither a showcase of great talent, nor a riveting tale ameliorated by political connotations, Fantasia comes across as a gentle, lightweight family melodrama with less than enough absorbing material to keep the scenario flowing smoothly.
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