Five Flavours 2014 Review: SHADOW DAYS, A Bold Critique Of China's Notorious One-Child Policy
The picture opens with a breathtaking panoramic shot that perfectly captures the stunning natural beauty of the area surrounding the aforementioned poor provincial town. Yet that gorgeous panorama stands in stark contrast to the hauntingly realistic imagery that permeates almost every frame of the picture, from the deceptively idyllic first post-opening credit scenes until the strikingly metaphorical finale.
Although Shadow Days has a very straightforward narrative, it nevertheless analyzes the background of its central characters with a smidge of ambiguity, never really explaining why Renwei (Liang Ming) and Pomegranate (Li Ziqian) have chosen the former's hometown to be the birthplace of their firstborn child. 'Firstborn' is actually the key word in the story. While in some crucial scenes Dayong references such immensely important turning points in China's history as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, his main aim is to expose the atrocities of forced sterilization and forced abortions driven by the government's atrocious One-Child policy.
After six long years the forty-four-year-old director returns to Zhizilou, a rundown Southwestern Chinese village, in which he shot what many consider to be his greatest film to date, the 2008 doc Ghost Town. Along for the ride he brings Renwei, a simple but stubborn loving and caring man who evidently hasn't forgotten his roots. It's as if though he, longing for the past, has somehow convinced Pomegranate to spend some time in a community that doesn't really have much to offer, but nevertheless holds a special place in his heart. Seeing how cool and fashion conscious is his urbanite girlfriend, it must've taken a lot of convincing. In fact, the only element that doesn't necessarily fit the rural scenery is Pomegranate.
However, the sentimental undertone of nostalgia gets washed away in a flash even before the lovebirds have a chance to settle down in their new house, namely a soon-to-be-demolished former school building owned by Renwei's mayor uncle (Liu Yu). Local policemen make a brief but effective appearance and somehow disturb the pleasantly homey ambiance. Is Renwei the one they're looking for? Can this gentle and optimistic young man actually be a criminal on the run? The smooth-talking uncle uses his authority to get rid of the unwanted guests, but this seemingly random intrusion sets off a tragic chain of events and further intensifies the distressing aura of mystery.
Not before long all the characters show their true colors: influenced by his uncle, a new job (enforcing One-Child policy through violence and public humiliation), and a group of brainwashed coworkers, Renwei begins to neglect Pomegranate and is cold towards her; that results in her becoming more anxious, uncomfortable, and introverted. She desperately wants to leave this boring place, but Renwei's newfound sense of a patriotic duty might change their plans. In such a closed, poverty-stricken society, inhabited by angry individuals fixated on following the rules and thus hurting each other continuously, planning a family doesn't really seem like the best option. Lack of a proper medical facility might pose problem as well.
Although in terms of narrative and visual style Shadow Days remains a strikingly realistic and sober picture, it actually takes the idea of 'ghost from the past' quite literally. Indeed, there's a few otherworldly sequences scattered within the realistic framework of the storytelling. Perhaps a bit on the extreme side, but the scene in which a bunch of CGI babies start floating around the head of the guilt-ridden uncle works perfectly as a haunting critique of the regime.
What brings the film back to earth is the great cast of mostly inexperienced actors. Yu, in particular, puts a strong spin on his character in a limited amount of screen time. A merciless and dastardly paternal figure of sorts, the uncle soon becomes the victim of a mysterious, debilitating illness. Convinced that the cause of his suffering is an unseen evil force, the man calls in a shaman and a priest. When both fail the uncle decides to consult the only person in the world that he can trust - Mao Zedong (or rather his white statuette). There's another scene in which an even bigger statue of the leader is carried across the street by a group of villagers but, though memorable, it doesn't really add much to the story.
Going against the mainstream grain, Dayong willingly puts himself in an enormously difficult position. Obviously, given the film's strongly critical attitude towards the country's political system, Shadow Days doesn't really stand a chance against the notorious Chinese censorship system, and is at present still anxiously trying to find distribution overseas. Hopefully, this powerful and arresting drama will find an audience that will appreciate its bold approach to a difficult topic.