Dreams Meet Reality

3 minute read
Susan Jakes

In Chinese film, as in Hollywood, ambition and nuance seldom keep company. The mainland’s best-known directors are masters of the kind of movies that critics call “epic” when they succeed and “overwrought” when they fail, films that swamp our eyes and yank at our hearts. Cinematographer Gu Changwei has shot many of Chinese cinema’s most imperial tours de forceZhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, Jiang Wen’s Devils at the Doorstep. But his directorial debut Peacock, surprise winner of the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, is a bird of a far less flashy feather. A portrait of a family’s struggles in a small Chinese city in the 1970s, Peacock draws its considerable power from its complex script (by the novelist Li Qiang), its imperfect characters and its emotional restraint in depicting the harshness of daily life in China.

At the heart of the movie are the three Gao siblings: Gao Weihong (Zhang Jingchu), the rebellious sister who wants to become a paratrooper and is constantly at war with forces determined to keep her grounded; her slow-witted older brother Gao Weiguo (Feng Li), whose parents favor him as unabashedly as his co-workers mistreat him; and Gao Weiqiang (Lu Yulai), the dreamy narrator whose life is overshadowed by his two older siblings. All three charactersplayed by first-time actorshover between childhood and adulthood. The Gaos march to their own time, refusingor just failingto follow the prescribed paths toward maturity. Weihong struggles to break free of social norms, while her brothers just struggle. Peacock chronicles their thwarted attemptssome touching, some depravedto take control of their own lives.

Society and the parents tap, and sometimes smash, the Gaos back into their assigned roles. But the moral shading in Peacock is as rich as the cinematography, and moments of great poignancythe mother’s efforts to persuade the prettiest girl in town to have dinner with her retarded son, the lengths to which the sister goes to defend her brothers from bulliestemper the hardness the Gao children sometimes display. Gu packs his film with vivid period details: boys play hacky-sack with a flaming chestnut, a couple preserves eggs in handfuls of sticky mud, a family’s supply of coal dissolves under a sudden rain. The camerawork is flawless; the takes long and sinuous.

The bird of the title is missing for most of the movie. But images that allude to it flutter through the film, in the splaying tail feathers of a dying duck, the folds of an accordion and the breathtaking flight of a parachute harnessed to the back of a bicycle. When a real peacock appears in the movie’s quiet coda, it declines to spread its plumage on demand and the onlookers move on, disappointed. Its splendor, like the Gao children’s dreams, remains unfledged and all-too-rarely glimpsed. Fortunately, this is not the case with Gu’s talents. He unfolds them masterfully and his Peacock is a marvel that deserves to be admired.

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