Directed by Wang Xiaoshuai
Wang Xiahshuai’s Red Amnesia seems to be the exception to the rule for a Mainland China film. It’s not an historical epic, a cuddly or action-packed animation, nor a Bridesmaids or The Hangover-styled comedy.
Deng (Zhong Lü) is retired widow who lives alone. She cares for her elderly mother, and sometimes unwantedly, for her two grown sons. When Deng starts receiving anonymous, silent phone calls, she fears for her own safety and that past events have come back to haunt her.
Part historical drama, part ghost story, part psychological thriller, Xiahshuai’s film is strongest when it’s simply about aging. Deng’s interaction with her own mother is heartbreaking, as are the conversations she has with her deceased husband. Red Amnesia is the rare film that doesn’t look to old age as something to be swept under the rug or to be feared, but rather as an inevitable, and cinematically-worthy process.
Xiahshuai’s film did the festival circuit in 2014, starting with heavyweights like Toronto and Venice, and it comes as no surprise that neither Shanghai nor Beijing were on the route. Though more about personal than political guilt, perhaps the very mention of the displacement of peoples during the Cultural Revolution and the fallout and deep-rooted malice thereafter is political in and of itself. There are other telling indicators of the presence of the past sprinkled throughout: collective singing of old Communist songs; red armbands worn by Deng’s friends.
Similarly important is a changing Beijing: one of Deng’s sons is gay; the other’s wife isn’t particularly enamored with the idea of spending time with her mother-in-law. Even Deng, in a show of youthful rebellion, yells at her mute mother, simultaneously taking out and acting out her own frustrations.
The first half of Red Amnesia is exceedingly slow. The one-trick pony of the unidentified caller gets old-hat quickly. Coupled with that is Xiahshuai’s penchant for a rather handheld camera. Perhaps meant to enhance Deng’s psychological distress, the shaky frame instead only enhances audience discomfort.
Luckily, both narrative and camera settle into something more palatable beyond the midpoint. Deng’s platonic relationship with a young male character (Shi Liu) who may or may not be stalking her is tense (as in one masterfully crosscut dream sequence), and once she leaves Beijing for a painful excavation of the past the film’s title becomes clearer and poignant.
Xiaoshuai and editor Hongyu Yang cleverly warp our sense of space and time. By withholding establishing shots of Deng’s apartment building they’re able to intentionally confuse the audience as to the spatial relationships of certain shots: a technique that pays off in the final 20 minutes of the film.
Red Amnesia falters at the end as Xiaoshuai and co-writer Lei Fang rely too heavily on irony. The result is an undeserved moment and something close to unfair treatment of the protagonist. The film would have been better served to remain restrained rather than to engage in the awkward redemptive note it chases.