Not even 20 years ago, most prominent films from China, whether officially approved or not, could expect a release in Japan, but not any more. It has less to do with content or even popularity than with lack of local distributors (not to mention venues) that are interested in—or that even understand—Chinese cinema. I imagine this family melodrama, which looks as if it were shot on a shoestring budget, wouldn’t have merited a Japan release if it hadn’t actually been a box office hit in China, which, due to its sensitive theme and fairly restrained dramatic presentation, was probably not predicted even in China.
The story isn’t particularly original. Ran (Zhang Zifeng) is a nursing intern at a hospital in the city of Chengdu who hopes to advance to a graduate program in Beijing. Her career path is interrupted by the deaths of her mother and father in an automobile accident. Though she has been estranged from her parents for a number of years, she is called back to her home by relatives who expect her to take care of her 6-year-old brother, Ziheng (Kim Darren Yowon), whom she doesn’t know at all since she entered nursing school around the time he was born. Eventually, we learn through flashbacks that Ran’s father compelled her to pretend to be disabled so that they could apply to the authorities for permission to have another child. This was when China enforced its one-child policy, and Ran’s father desperately wanted a son. Ran resented the subterfuge, which is one of the reasons she left home, so she feels no particular responsibility to her parents’ memory or her brother himself, which causes much friction with her various relatives, who not only want her to take Ziheng but also demand she give them a piece of her parents’ property, which is now legally in her name.
Zhang plays Ran as pugnacious and aggrieved, and the performance lifts the movie out of whatever sentimental mire it’s in danger of being stuck in. In fact, Zhang, a former child actor, has become a certified star due to the relative success of Sister. She also helps sell director Yin Ruoxin’s social criticism regarding Chinese society’s lingering gender discrimination. Ran is up against a lot to achieve her dream of becoming a medical professional. In addition to her relatives’ restrictive expectations, her boyfriend, another intern, doesn’t seem to be fully behind her determination to move to Beijing. Even her hospital colleagues disappoint her as professionals when they cave to a man who insists his wife bring her pregnancy to term even though it will likely end in miscarriage and possible death for the mother.
That’s why the predictable outcome of the film may dishearten many viewers. Ziheng is a terror in the beginning who, having not been told his parents actually died, resists Ran’s halfhearted attempts to take care of him while she looks for adoptive parents and endeavors to sell the family home. Over time, her resistance is eroded by Ziheng’s fundamental neediness, and while the development of their relationship is affecting and natural, its direction is towards a conclusion that feels determined by forces outside the scope of the nuanced and thoughtful script. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that, regardless of how pointedly she has addressed her social themes, in the end Yin felt she had to acquiesce at least partially to traditional sensibilities.
In Mandarin. Opens Nov. 25 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608).
Sister home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 Shanghai Lian Ray Pictures Co., Ltd.