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“Cherries” is one of those films that comes to DVD with fantastically inappropriate and misleading box art, in this case featuring a variety of naked pictures of lead actress Miao Pu. Needless to say, viewers lured in by this cheap trick (the pictures in question are all taken from one brief scene) will soon find themselves mightily disappointed, as the film turns out to be a touching rural drama which charts the relationship between a mentally handicapped woman and her adopted daughter – admittedly a hard sell in marketing terms. Apparently based upon a true story, the film was directed by Mainland Chinese helmer Zhang Jia Bei, and marked a significant departure from his previous work, the horror “Clay Fear”. Unsurprisingly given the subject matter and setting, the film enjoyed a fair amount of festival play around the world, premiering at Tokyo and screening at Cannes.
The film is set in rural China, in a village called Aicun, in Yunnan province, and takes place during the early 1980s. Ge Wang (Tuo Guoquan) is a crippled, penniless farmer who follows his grandmother’s advice and takes mentally handicapped woman Cherry (actress Miao Pu, who worked with the director on “Clay Fear” and who also featured in the Feng Xiaogang produced “Gimme Kudos”) for his bride. Warm hearted but troublesome, Cherry is so-named due to her habit of running around offering handfuls of cherries to the local children. Their marriage is happy enough, though Cherry pines for a child of her own. One day, her dream is fulfilled when she finds an abandoned baby in the nearby woods, and she battles against the odds to bring the girl up as her own. However, as the girl grows into teenager Scarlet (Long Li), the relationship between surrogate mother and daughter becomes strained.
“Cherries” is a fairly basic film, with a neat three act chronological structure, following Cherry’s yearning for a child, her discovery of the baby, and her changing relationship with the growing Scarlet. Wisely, Zhang keeps things natural, and allows the story to unfold at its own pace and without anything in the way of artificial drama. As such, a fair amount of the running time is filled with following Cherry, and later Scarlet as they go about their daily lives, performing simple tasks or walking around the village. This is not to say that little happens in the film, as Zhang manages to find meaning and interest in almost everything that Cherry does, and through this he quietly explores the challenges faced by and attitudes towards the mentally handicapped. This works well, and the viewer is drawn slowly into her life and struggle, and the film is surprisingly engaging, without ever being overtly melodramatic or playing the sympathy card too often. The only let down comes with the ending, which sees Zhang trying to combine a touch of ambiguity with a crudely underlined social message, neither of which were particularly needed.
With her character being on screen in almost every scene, the success of the film rests largely upon the shoulders of lead actress Miao Pu, and she proves herself up to the task with an excellent, wholly believable performance as Cherry. The film attempts a realistic depiction of the life of a mentally challenged woman, never shying away from awkward subjects such as her sexual desires and her unfortunate habit of shedding her clothes. Although the part is virtually wordless, Miao Pu manages to convey an impressive depth of emotion, allowing Cherry not only to be understood, but also to be identified with as a person in her own right rather than simply as a figure of pity. As a result, the film is painful to watch in places, particularly in the third act as Scarlet grows embarrassed by her mother’s inappropriate behaviour, though its sadness and heartache are genuine and hard-won.
Lifting the film up is Zhang’s excellent direction, which makes the very most of the gorgeous scenery in a pleasingly subtle manner, capturing the exquisite, still beauty of the misty mountains, the luscious forests and the picturesque rice fields. At the same time, he manages to give the film a distinctly gritty, down to earth feel, employing naturalistic lighting and documentary style shaky camera work. As such the film enjoys the best of both worlds, being both visually impressive and convincingly realistic.
It’s a shame that the subject matter (and possibly the box art) may result in “Cherries” being somewhat marginalised, as it stands as a superior example of the kind of honest, character driven drama that Chinese cinema does so well. Moving, humanistic and featuring a powerful lead performance, it sees director Zhang Jia Bei transcending the usual clichés of films made about the mentally challenged and producing a simple though effective tale of the bond between mother and daughter.
Zhang Jiabei (director) / Bao Shi (screenplay)
CAST: Miao Pu …. Cherry
Tuo Guoquan …. Ge Wang
Long Li …. Scarlet