WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS
Directed by Ji Dan
Official Selection, 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam
Objectif d’Or for best documentary, 2012 Millennium International Documentary Film Festival
In size and scope, it’s hard to top recent masterpieces of Chinese documentary like Ghost Town, and in piercing intimacy, it’s hard to lock in much closer than a Fortune Teller or Last Train Home. And yet Ji Dan’s remarkable, miraculous WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS manages to do both uncompromisingly and with absolute dedication to its subject: a family of five on the outskirts of a city. The father collects and sells scrap metal, while three children go to school with limited funds. But this is no mere ode to the tribulations of destitution, or to the monetary expense of getting ahead. Before long, a portrait of a most turbulent family comes into view. The parents, especially a disgruntled drunkard dad, do all they can to maintain some semblance of control, while the pre-teen twin daughters hold the family’s long-term financial vision, though they too exhibit their father’s impatient proclivity for conflict.
In notes of high drama of the classical sort, Ji Dan explores upward mobility’s downward emotional turmoil on a family as days, months, years pass, often without the usual expositional sign-posts. Long, impeccably-shot verbal arguments seem to stretch hours of a day, and are riveting not so much for the yelling, but for the minutiae, in particular the silence of the son, whose fate motivates much of the conflict. Through it all is a sense of environmental doom: the weather, the military jets, the sounds of firecrackers in the distance. When the film comes to a close following a Lunar New Year unlike any other, a visceral transcendence is achieved that numbs the skin and pounds the heart. –Brian Hu