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A Dog Barking at the Moon - BFI Flare At Home

Wednesday 27 May 2020, by Tommy Hodgson

Tommy’s review of the week is Xiang Zi’s A Dog Barking at the Moon, streamed on BFI Player as part of the #FlareatHome film festival.

A Dog Barking at the Moon is a fittingly dramatic piece following the trials of a Chinese family as they deal with the revelation of repressed homosexuality within the family. Director Xiang Zi’s semi-autobiographical feature brings the uncomfortable feelings and lingering resentments of each character to the fore through slow-paced shots, with long drawn-out scenes that intensify the gradual dig to uncover these long-buried secrets.

The saga is told through various points in time, dealing largely with the revelation that the character Li Jiumei’s husband has secretly been living as a homosexual. This disruption provokes a range of responses from the family, with the style aptly showing how the secret has spanned across ages and circumstances. As we see in flash forwards, the couple chose to remain in a toxic marriage due to taboos about divorce and homosexuality - when their now-pregnant daughter visits from abroad, old tensions are brought back to the surface. The time jumps give emotional depth to the revelations and reactions from the characters, exploring themes of denial, anger and lost loves with honesty and clarity. The generational approaches to shame reveal a deeper pattern of unresolved issues that untangle but are left in the open, never to be fully or neatly concluded.

Naren Hua, who plays the pained matriarch Li Jiumei, deserves high praise for her portrayal of such an infuriating and tragic character - a reactionary, unsympathetic soul but a victim too of societal burdens and of her own pride in refusing divorce as an escape. As she is forced to face the reality of her husband’s secret, she shifts the blame onto those around her and looks toward the paranormal, opting to join a religious cult to atone herself of this imagined sin.

Many of the characters seek ‘cures’ in this fashion - external solutions to inward problems around homosexuality, desire and love; for instance a younger couple use a marriage of convenience to conceal both their sexual preferences and the decision to adopt. So much of the plot comes back to highlighting these specific aspects of both traditional and contemporary Chinese culture. The tensions often stem from the importance placed on perception of the family, with secrets or irregularities never to be spoken outside of the house for fear of judgement. As Li Juimei articulates with revealing insight into her character’s mindset, ‘gossips can bury you alive’.

The direction uses a captivating theatrical style - even going so far as to represent a driving scene through chairs on an empty stage. As Xiang Zi elaborated in an interview for BFI Flare last month, a wholly realistic style was purposely not used to prevent the audience becoming ‘too close’ to the characters; a sharp moment was needed every so often to bring the audience out of the story to reflect. Not being ‘trapped by the story’ gives the viewer some much-needed emotional distance from the otherwise all-consuming and heart-wrenching tale. The cinematography focuses on delicate details of the sets, utilising long silences masterfully to draw attention to obsessive, repetitive actions such as preparing food. Incidentally, exploration of food culture in China is often a recurrence - deep, heavy conversations happen over meals but food also serves as a distraction from the penetration and pain of reality.

This personal and radical art piece is nothing short of cinematic excellence; one can only assume that speaking the language of the film would provide an even more profound understanding of the story than the translations can do justice. It is nominally about one family’s journey - but gives greater context to China’s interesting relationship towards homosexuality, pregnancy and the concept of marriage. From its inception, the piece draws you into this saga, approaching a heavy, soul-searching topic with nuance which details both the agency and pettiness of humanity. On a grander scale, A Dog Barking at the Moon illustrates what hiding the truth can do to foundational relationships, and the decisions we all make in either rising above societal pressures, or bowing to its will in potentially extreme and damaging ways.

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