“A Dog Barking at the Moon”
An Honest Look at Family
Director Xiang Zi has made an astoundingly personal and radical film debut exploring a family torn asunder by tradition and trauma. Barely fictionalized, “A Dog Barking at the Moon” directly addresses Xiang’s real family life. She moves back and forth between decades to understand where she comes from. The maturity and grace of the self-reflection on display and Xiang’s empathy for her imperfect parents is staggering.
Huang Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) returns home to Beijing from New York with her Western husband in tow, her outsider’s perspective shedding new light on deeply-entrenched family traditions The film’s interpersonal conflict was triggered in Xiaoyu’s childhood, when her mother walked in on her father compromised with a male lover. The event comes into the present, with Xiaoyu’s parents choosing to remain in a resentful and toxic marriage.
Naren Hua as mother Li Jiumei is outstanding as an obtuse and ridiculous matriarch desperately clinging to the possibility that her husband’s proclivities are a disease to be cured. (Jiumei is hardly an outrider in her values – Xiang avoided specifying the gender of the father’s paramour in the synopsis provided to China’s censorship bureau to gain shooting approval.)
To her daughter’s horror, Jiumei finds solace in an exploitative Buddhist cult, and mother and daughter butt heads in standoffs that veer from detached and mundane to fervently antagonistic. With Nan positioned in a passive, observant role, it is left to Naren to cover the emotional spectrum and she does so. Beautifully and with grace and style. Shockingly specific and thoughtfully teased out, “A Dog Barking at the Moon” is high drama that accommodates nuance, humor and humanity with deftness and confidence.
“Dog Barking At The Moon” won the Teddy prize at Berlin for LGBT-themed features. Zi demonstrates with her debut that she is a name to watch. As her film moves towards its conclusion, she seems to grow in confidence, deftly inserting some unexpected touches (a stage set that breaks the fourth wall, or mythical creatures who come to life to take quiet vengeance).
Juimei is angry and tells her daughter, “I haven’t had a happy day since your birth”. The source of her discontent is her husband’s homosexuality, which even now she attributes to “mental illness”. There is also bitter and never-ending regret over a male child she aborted — possibly as a result of China’s one-child policy.
Refusing a divorce, and with a husband who pays her no attention, she unleashes all her bitterness and bad temper at her daughter. Repeated flashbacks make it clear this vindictiveness has gone on for years, yet Xiaoyu still tries to find a solution, and her parents carry on stewing in their own discontent, the sources of which are also revealed in flashbacks. This is a film that you do not want to miss.