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Although the likes of “Curse of the Golden Flower” and other glamorous, big budget costume epics have grabbed headlines with their preening and posturing, arguably one of the most significant films to come from China in recent years has in fact been “Peacock”, a quiet, low budget character driven drama which managed a massive 30 million receipts at the domestic box office. Unlike many other Chinese cinematic exports, “Peacock” also enjoyed considerable success with critics around the world, winning the Silver Bear prize at the 55th Berlin International Film Festival. The film marks the directorial debut of Gu Changwei, who previously served as cinematographer on a number of notable features, including Zhang Yimou’s “Red Sorghum” and Chen Kaige’s “Farewell my Concubine”.
Set in 1970s China, the film focuses on a set of three siblings, made up of a mentally retarded and obese elder brother, his idealistic sister, and younger brother, a shy, bullied boy who longs to leave his family and bleak existence behind. The story is basically split into sections, one for each of the three and follows their everyday existence, showing the various ill fortunes which befall the family and the squabbles they seem to be constantly engaging in from different perspectives.
Thankfully, there is far more to “Peacock” than its rather dry sounding plot, and the film is by no means the kind of earnest but dull character drama which might have been expected. Indeed, the story contains a number of genuine surprises, with Gu never taking traditional routes or offering any kind of easy answers, instead presenting the viewer with a fascinating set of characters who are all essentially very difficult to like or even understand, though who are all too believable and who are at times painfully sympathetic.
As a result, the mood of the film is dark throughout, exploring themes of shattered innocence and ruined dreams, with most of the plot revolving around acts of cruelty and petty rivalries between people who seem not to love or respect each other outside of their familial obligations. The film shows an unflinching lack of sentiment throughout, though Gu never passes judgement on the characters, and as such the proceedings have a strangely compassionate air, verging on the tragic, though without ever becoming truly depressing or mired in angst.
Interestingly, although “Peacock” obviously has a very strong sense of place and is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, Gu avoids political commentary, choosing to focus largely on the human aspects of the story. This proves to be a wise move, as it avoids the need for the kind of clich’d symbolism which would undoubtedly have detracted from the realism of the film. Similarly, by not harbouring any obvious ulterior motive, Gu crafts what is a truly down to earth tale which speaks not only of, but to everyday people, and which is all the more effective for eschewing the pretentious intellectual ideals which have bedevilled other directors and reduced their works to clumsy allegory.
As might be expected from a veteran cinematographer, Gu’s direction is assured and unhurried, and he is never afraid to simply let the camera be still and observe the characters in their daily lives, a fact which frequently gives the film an almost documentary feel. The narrative is cleverly constructed and plays out in a manner which keeps the viewer interested despite the long running time, with the three sides to the story complimenting each other by gradually revealing more details and motivations. Perhaps inevitably for so thoughtful and quiet a film, the pace does drag a little at times, especially during some of the present day framing scenes which could have been trimmed to better effect.
However, this is a relatively minor criticism for what is an engaging and rich drama, which not only marks Gu as a talented film maker, but which again highlights the fact that Chinese cinema is capable of more than just overblown historical hysteria. Ironically, with its length and generation spanning narrative, “Peacock” can perhaps be seen as an epic in its own right, and indeed a far more believable and rewarding one than so many of its grandiose brethren.
Changwei Gu (director) / Qiang Li (screenplay)
CAST: Jing An
Li Feng …. Older brother
Changwei Gu …. Blind man
Meiying Huang …. Mother
Liu Lei …. Guo Zi