J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Old Beast

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has embraced Confucianism and its filial piety to cover for the shortcomings of its own failed socialist ideology. As far as Lao Yang is concerned, you can just stick your five relationships in your ear. He is going to take what’s coming to him and do as he will, letting his family be damned in Zhou Ziyang’s Old Beast (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Like the city of Ordos, Lao Yang has had his ups and downs, so now he figures the world owes him, including his family. His wife just suffered a stroke and needs an operation, but he wouldn’t know. He is too busy drinking with cronies and dropping by his mistress’s flat. In between these important duties, he has a camel he was supposedly taking care of for a buddie butchered for its meat.

Yes, Lao Yang is a hard man to love, but he is more complicated than he initially seems. It turns out he rather generously supported his grown children when they needed it most. Still, stealing the cash they scraped together for their mother’s operation is about as dirty it gets. It is hard to blame them for tying him up and holding him hostage. However, things really get ugly when Lao Yang gets the police involved.

At this point, the vibe of Old Beast starts to feel like contemporary Iranian dramas, such as Melbourne and About Elly, in which the characters keep digging deeper and deeper moral-ethical holes to bury themselves in. Everything Lao Yang does makes the situation worse for him and his long-suffering family. It gets uncomfortable to watch, but he certainly receives his comeuppance.

Tu Men is quite remarkable as Lao Yang, in what could be described as a Falstaffian performance, but without the loud bluster. There is real Shakespearean dimension to the man, but there is also a painfully realistic grubbiness. He dominates the film, but Sun Jiaqin and Yan Liyang further ratchet up the pathos as his married and expecting daughter Yang Xiaoqin and his favorite grandson, Dandan.

Zhou and cinematographer Matthias Delvaux shrewdly use the Ordos and Inner Mongolian locales to create an environment of hardscrabble helplessness. The way the ostentatious Communist monuments and decaying housing projects dwarf the people into meaningless makes Lao Yang’s the-heck-with-it nihilism rather understandable. This is a strong film in all respects that deserves eventual theatrical and DVD releases. Very highly recommended, Old Beast screens Tuesday night (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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