Review: Red Amnesia (Wang, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Mrs. Deng (Lü Zhong) is a strong-willed woman, what my mother or grandmother would have called a nu qiang ren. She lives by herself (unless you count the portrait of her deceased husband, with which she frequently converses) but fills her days with family-oriented errands–visiting her mother in the nursing home, picking up her grandson from school, and meddling in the affairs of her two grown sons. If her mind is not quite as sharp as it used to be, at least her tongue still is. Though her elder son, Zhang Jun (Feng Yuanzheng), wants her to move in with him, she shoos away his entreaties, preferring her independence. She is sure-footed, practical-minded, and full of furious, derisive energy, not relaxing until she is finally home alone with her television and electric foot bath.

Into this commonplace milieu is thrown a rather uncommon mystery: Mrs. Deng has been receiving prank phone calls at all hours of the day, the caller never saying anything. Though she reports the harassment to her sons and the police, none of them take her seriously at first. But then the intimidation becomes more forceful, culminating in a brick thrown through Mrs. Deng’s window. Meanwhile, the mind and memory of the elderly lady become more and more troubled as Mrs. Deng’s past, literally, comes back to haunt her.

Running parallel to Deng’s story is another series of scenes: that of an anonymous teenage boy (Liu Shi) in various apartments, clearly broken into and ransacked. His destruction is disturbing in its wanton, careful cruelty. Somehow, we know, he is coming for Mrs. Deng. Somehow she knows it, too.

With Red Amnesia, seasoned director Wang Xiaoshuai creates more than just a thriller. The film is an exploration of hidden pasts, of festering sins and wrongs that can’t be righted. And perhaps, too, it’s a sly probing of China’s own buried history. The Beijing of Mrs. Deng’s sons is modern, cosmopolitan, fast-paced, and, to her, slightly incomprehensible. She willfully ignores her younger son’s homosexuality and eschews the comforts of her elder son’s wealth (from long habit rather than ideology). As the world seems to pass her by, she retreats into a past that we discover is mired in moral pitfalls. Though the film is ostensibly about one woman’s guilt, could it not also be a quiet condemnation of the political environment that forced her into such difficult choices? That is not to say that Red Amnesia lets Deng off the hook; she and people like her were, after all, a key element of that political environment.

As a drama, Red Amnesia works relatively well. Lü Zhong’s Mrs. Deng is rich with all the foibles and ossified habits that make a character feel distinctly human. As a thriller, however, it’s both predictable and underwhelming. While the attempt to meld the two genres is interesting, as we’ve seen in other films this festival, it is not altogether successful. The ending, its climax, is both gimmicky in its suddenness, and a bit heavy-handed. Still, it is the only film I’ve seen of late that attempts to align China’s effervescent present with its troubled past. Wang shows the endeavor is worth the effort.

Red Amnesia screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring.

Note: I like the original Chinese title so much better than Red Amnesia. Chuang ru zhe translates loosely into Gatecrasher.