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Splendid Isolation
A low budget film about the loneliness of the elderly strikes a chord in China
By Li Nan | NO. 7 FEBRUARY 15, 2018
Wei Daxue, played by Zhu Xijuan, eats alone in her home in a still from the film A Loner (FILE)

After first watching A Loner, renowned Hong Kong director Derek Yee Tung-sing didn't slip out of the cinema unseen once the lights went out as he had originally planned. Were it not for the invitation of an old friend in June 2017, Yee would never have been sitting there watching an art-house film on the loneliness of twilight years by a young, relatively unknown director named Xing Xiao. And yet there he was, gripped by the considered and elegant storytelling, eyes glued to the screen until the final credits rolled. "It's well constructed and worthy of high praise," said Yee.

A Loner stars 80-year-old Zhu Xijuan, a preeminent figure in the Chinese film industry and recipient of the first best actress award since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. It depicts the lonely and tragic life of an elderly widow, Wei Daxue. Wei's daughter works in Shanghai, and Wei herself lives with a dog in an old quadrangle courtyard home in downtown Beijing. She is introverted and seldom talks with others, spending her days walking her dog and watching TV dramas. While the occasional phone conversation with her daughter brings joy to her otherwise cheerless life, her daughter is usually too busy to talk. Wei wallows in loneliness, and ultimately dies watching TV, with several days passing before anyone notices.

Xing Xiao, director of the film A Loner (WEI YAO)

Insiders' applause

The film aims to highlight the struggles faced by some seniors in China, and the all too often inadequateness of their care. Figures from the Ministry of Civil Affairs show that there were around 150 million Chinese aged 65 and above by the end of 2016, 10.8 percent of the country's total population and 3.8 percentage points higher than the UN threshold for an aging society.

"Wei's problem is universal in the world. Everyone grows old. How to enjoy decent and meaningful twilight years is a challenge for us all. We should pay more attention to the elderly in our society," Zhu told Beijing Review.

Xing, 35 and a director with the China Film Group Corp., has seven films to his name including China's first 3D movie Don Quixote, having won two awards including best new director at the Third Macao International Movie Festival. A Loner marks Xing's first foray into the world of art-house film.

"I have worked in the industry for 14 years. The more I devote to my work, the less time I can spare for my parents. I feel guilty about this and so I decided to produce this film to show my respect to them," Xing told Beijing Review.

"I hope that everyone who watches the film will either call their parents, or go home and give their parents a big hug," he said, adding that he invited his mother to live with him in Beijing after the completion of the film.

"It's good to be with my mother," Xing said.

Han Yeqiang, a scriptwriter with the Xi'an-based Western Movie Group, felt the same guilt after watching A Loner. "It reminds us that we need to spend more time with our parents," Han told Beijing Review.

Yee and Han are not the only ones in the film industry to be moved by A Loner. Before its premiere in January, the film had been shortlisted for four international prizes including the Chinese Film Festival Award at the 41st Montreal World Film Festival and the Golden Angel Award at the 13th China-U.S. Film Festival in 2017. A Loner was also presented at five domestic film events including the 26th Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival, popularly known as the Chinese Oscars. Leading actress Zhu won the Jury Grand Prix Prize at the 20th Shanghai International Film and TV Festival in June 2017.

Courtesy of its critical success, A Loner was also one of 24 domestic films to enjoy a subsidy of 2 million yuan ($317,541) from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television in 2017.

Quality throughout

How can a low budget film without the usual big hitting elements of the movie industry such as action or comedy have earned such rave reviews?

"The reality of life touches us," said Yin Hong, Professor with the Journalism and Communication School of Tsinghua University, "The plot evolves slowly. Few direct conflicts are seen in the film, highlighting the feeling of loneliness from the very beginning to the end."

"A Loner is not an amusing film. It has neither dramatic plots nor superstars that can entice young moviegoers. What I want to present is my understanding of life and death," Xing said.

Professional dedication is another possible explanation for the movie's success. For Zhu, the most unforgettable part of the film is her character's seven minute monologue.

"I thought that the scene might require five to six clips stitched together, but somewhat remarkably, Zhu was able to pull it off in a single extended shot," said Xing.

It took a whole day to get it right, and the 80-year-old veteran actress was naturally exhausted by the end. According to Xing, the budget for A Loner was 3 million yuan ($476,311), the lowest of any movie in his career to date.

"It is difficult to get funding for art-house films," Xing said, describing how the day before shooting was scheduled to start, he still didn't have all the money at his disposal. Due to the tight budget, the production team had to finish all the 1,000 plus shots in a month. It meant that the cast had to work 10 hours a day for 26 straight days.

However, the remuneration for the leading actress was some 100,000 yuan ($15,874), less than one 10th of what it would cost to pay a young star to attend a promotional event of just a few hours. "I was very anxious giving the script to Zhu. After all she is a renowned veteran actress," said Xing.

To Xing's surprise, Zhu agreed to star in the film without asking for so much as a penny more for her payment.

"Society should show more love for the elderly. I love the character and I love dogs so I thought it was worth a try. For us old people, money is not what we strive for," said Zhu.

When asked about her views on the exorbitant amounts of money demanded by popular young actors who often underperform in films, Zhu respectfully replied that "time is the best test for their careers. In life only the best survive in the long run. I believe that as time passes this generation will grow up and understand that they have to improve."

Box office plight

A Loner enjoys a good reputation in film circles, but its box office performance far from reflects its critical acclaim. With screening opportunities restricted to less than 1 percent of cinemas nationwide, it has grossed just 190,000 yuan ($30,166) in the 10 days following its release on January 25.

Nonetheless, the film's box office performance has done nothing to affect Xing's satisfaction. "Although we lost at the box office, we won the attention of film critics. It's a film made with great passion that expresses what I want to express. I think A Loner has accomplished its mission," said Xing.

"Will you try the art-house genre again in the future?" asked Beijing Review.

"Definitely," Xing replied.

But Xing is not blind in his optimism about what's to come; Yee, so impressed by A Loner, has agreed to be the producer of his next film.

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

Comments to linan@bjreview.com

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