Mama ★★★★½

The silent child
Source of pain and hope.
A mother gives her all
Colors exposing reality.

Always a shame when I'm the first one to upload these films, but one hopes that an impassioned response will lead to others to check it out—unfortunately this one isn't even on Karagara, so all I can say is NYers should go to MoMA's Wednesday night screening, even if it's a really bad Digibeta.

After watching this, I was struggling to think of a film that treated mental retardation/autism that wasn't a) offensive comedy or b) liberal do-gooderism "oh look he's just like us." What's apparent from the opening moments of Mama is that Zhang Yuan is not going to force feed any sentimentalism on us—this film about a single mother (played by screenwriter Qing Yan) raising an autistic son who can't speak a single word is Dardennes-level gut punching. Film focuses on the mother's troubles in raising a son she has to keep her eyes on at all time. Shot in 1.33 and black and white, Zhang opts for close-ups versus the all-so-popular master shot aesthetic, and at times the mise-en-scene has a Tarr-like hard edge to it. Film sticks to the issues of minuta: Liang can't find a proper school for her child, has troubles keeping him at the library she works at, and constantly rejects putting him in a welfare state. Meeting with her ex-husband, he simply proposes to have another child "and start over." Watching Liang wrap her son Dongdong in blankets to stop his epilepsy is staggering. No music. No screaming or crying. Just daily struggle.

Film interweaves color footage of actual mothers discussing their relationships with autism, and Liang suddenly appears in one of these, thus helping structure our relationship to this drama as not just one of melodrama but a huge problem in China where education is the only way to have a future. Credits did not list Dongdong as "himself," but if the child that played that role was simply acting and did not suffer from a mental disability himself, then I would rank it amongst the greats. His face and his ability to have an inability to express himself, to not comprehend what is going on around him was pretty much unbearable.

A hard watch for sure, but a very necessary film with a lot of humanism. Apparently one of the first independent productions in China and clearly a film that has a huge impact on Jia Zhangke and other Sixth generationers.

Update: Please email me at plabuza at gmail dot com if you would like more information on how to see Mama.

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