There is nothing startlingly new in the story of a little kid and an old man going on a journey of mutual self-discovery – it is a road-trip standard. This one (screening at Pighouse Flicks) is different insofar as it is set in China but directed by the French filmmaker Phillipe Muyl. Returning to a theme that he explored with The Butterfly (2002), Muyl has come up with an elegant piece in which a fine balance is struck between western sentiment and eastern restraint.
The child in question is Ren Xing (Xin Yi Yang), the over-indulged daughter of quarrelling parents whose marriage is at breaking point. When their hectic business schedules take them out of town, Xing is left in the care of her grandfather Zhi Gen Zhu (Baotian Li), who decides to take her with him on a pilgrimage from Beijing to the family’s ancestral home in the country. Inevitably, the pair lose their way in a forest, at which point their bonding commences. It is a lovely idea, touching and observed without falseness – the only trouble for me was that I took longer to warm to the kid than her grandfather did. If she is meant to represent the downside of the People’s Republic’s blind embrace of modernity and consumerism, she succeeds with formica hardness and Muyl tends to be too forgiving of her.
The truly enchanting passages come when they arrive at the village. It may be no more than an idealised recreation of what once was, but it provides a peek into a more gentle, pre-wired world where children don’t need dates to play – they even climb trees, unchaperoned! Xing is overwhelmed by the novelty and pure fun of it all. If Yang is good without entirely winning your heart it may be a reflection of modern childhood rather than her acting, whereas Li holds it all together. And, for those of us who have not travelled to rural China, the cinematography is redolent of what we understand of Oriental serenity.