Venice 2014: 'Red Amnesia' review

★★★☆☆
In a Venice that has been bizarrely bereft of strong female performances and roles - Bechdel tests at the ready - Xiaoshuai Wang's Red Amnesia (2014) comes as something of a latter-stage relief. Veteran Chinese theatre actress Lü Zhong catches the eye as Deng, an elderly woman recently bereaved. The newly-made widow keeps busy, picking her grandchild up from school and benignly if a bit bossily interfering in the lives of her two grown sons. She cooks meatballs for gay son Bing (Qin Hao), an act spiked with obvious maternal disapproval, and visits Jun (Feng Yuanzheng) who is a family man but whose daughter-in-law (Amanda Qin) is easily irritated by Deng's passive aggressive meddling.

Deng also takes it upon herself to look after her own ancient mother who is in a care home and at home talks to her dead husband who sits in his usual place as a kind of benign ghost. However, other less friendly phantoms lurk around her. The phone rings and when she picks up no one is there. A stone is thrown through her window and although the police are called and her sons suspect a local debt collector, no one seems to know what to do next. Throughout the slow progression of the opening the film's tone slips between a gentle observational humour of familial roles and the sense of impending threat. When a young boy (Shi Liu) arrives on the scene, Deng is unsure as to whether what she's experiencing is a supernatural event, a hallucination or something potentially life-threatening.

In using this initial mystery of unknown forces, Xiashuai's Red Amnesia shares many similarities with Michael Haneke's Hidden (2005) and he is exploring a similarly political act of wilful forgetting and guilt. Whereas Haneke's concern was Algeria, Xiashuai's is the Cultural Revolution and the survivors and perpetrators who remained. The slow revelation of a partly hidden, partly suppressed past makes of Deng's story something much larger and the director broadens his vision, moving Deng out of Beijing and back to the countryside and location of her former exile. While in Beijing an endless queue forms to apply for one free apartment, the factory region of Guizhou deep in the countryside is apparently abandoned, full of crumbling red brick ruins and occasional residents effectively left behind.

The slow unwinding of the tale reveals Deng to be a much more complicated character than was first apparent and that even her sons suspected. Indeed, Red Amnesia's first half is about generational neglect, the rendering obsolete of those who no longer have a place and their vulnerable position in the city. This at first seems unjust as she has done so much for her family, made hard choices. However, in her commitment to her sons, there has also been a callous selfishness, which has caused untold damage and suffering. Red Amnesia is a brave and necessary film, probing painful memories and stirring into life forgotten guilt and enmity. Although there is the odd moment which slips into melodrama, the drama is sustained by a pitch perfect and award worthy performance by Lü.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale

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