White Mulberry Award for First Time Director Nominee
Like Father and Son
拨浪鼓咚咚响 (Bo Lang Gu Dong Dong Xiang)
China, 2020, 97’, Mandarin
Directed by: Bai Zhiqiang
Script: Bai Zhiqiang, Gao Feng, Han ZhiXuan, Zhang Guanghui
Producer: Lu Wei
Production Company: Xiang Xiang Shi Dai Entertainment Culture Media (Beijing) Co. Cast: Hui Wangjun (Shi Gouren), Bai Zeze (Shi Maodou)
Date of First Release in Territory: July 28th, 2020
In a film industry increasingly focused on the production of spectacular films with colossal budgets, a film like Like Father and Son is particularly noteworthy. It makes up for its modest budget with an engaging narrative and excellent performances, by non-professional actors who show innate talent and comedy. The film was originally conceived as a documentary about children left behind in villages by migrant parents, but director and screenwriter Bai Zhiqiang, who has a prolific documentary career under his belt, turned it into a feature film to address the issue while protecting the identity of the protagonists.
The film is structured like a classic road movie and has only two characters: a street vendor and a child. Unlike other recent films about on-the-road adventures involving a grandfather and grandson in unresolved family dynamics (Huo Meng’s Crossing the Border, FEFF 2019; Feng Keyu’s A Summer Trip, 2021), the protagonists in Like Father and Son barely know each other when they begin their journey and are openly hostile to each other. Shi Guoren is a middle-aged man who travels from one village to another in Shaanxi Province in a rundown truck selling all kinds of merchandise.
His travels have taken a turn for the tragic recently, as his son has died of an illness and Guoren blames the death on an old friend who defrauded him of money needed for hospital treatment; so he hits the road in the hunt for his former friend to avenge his son’s death with blood. Shi Madou is one of the many children abandoned by their parents in their home villages, but the grandmother who looked after him suddenly dies, and Madou decides to go in search of his father. He hides in Guoren’s truck, but inadvertently sets fire to the firecrackers stored there on the occasion of the Chinese New Year, and ends up starting a fire that causes serious damage to the vehicle. Guoren, furious, decides to accompany Madou to the city where his father works as a construction worker to ask him for damages.
The relationship between the two begins in the worst possible way: Guoren is still devastated by grief, and the presence of a child stirs up painful memories. He has a vendetta to carry out and has neither money nor time to waste. Madou is afraid and distrustful of Guoren, but he is desperate to find the father he has idealised, even though he hasn’t heard from him for some time. People they meet along the way confuse them for father and son. The journey, through the arid but fascinating territory typical of North-west China, will be adventurous but above all cathartic for both, even if the two will have to face up to difficult situations and deep disappointments.
The film’s value lies not so much in the story it tells as in the style of its direction – inspired by Italian neo-realism – and in the dynamics between the two stars, who succeed in injecting a natural authenticity into the relationship between Gouren and Madou. Almost in spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, in some scenes they even manage to express the subtle comedy of consummate actors. The film uses the dialect of Shaanxi, the home province of both the protagonists and the director. Madou is played by Bai Zeze, a ten-year-old boy who is a natural – on the back of the success of Like Father and Son, which was selected for the Asian New Talent Award at the Shanghai Film Festival, Zeze was invited to be in the patriotic film My People, My Homeland directed by Deng Chao. A star is born.
A photography graduate from the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts in 2006, Bai Zhiqiang (Shaanxi, 1983) began to work as an independent director in 2009, on numerous films and TV series.
2011 – Dao Qing
2014 – Singing While Walking
2015 – Sound Life
2020 – Like Father and Son