Dearest – Sydney Film Festival review

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At several points during the first half of Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s emotional child abduction story Dearest, the camera hovers (seemingly unnecessarily) on smaller details of the mish-mash of life in Shenzhen, a major city in the south China province of Guangdong. Details such as a tangled collection of electrical wires each impossible to distinguish from the other, small pets like kittens and monkeys appearing vulnerable and frightened, aimless testosterone infused teens wandering the streets searching for rights of passage brawls and small neon lit shops in an endless maze of back alleys. As well as creating a clichéd emotional context, these images serve to both implicate the complexities and sublimated anger at China’s one child policy. But they also successfully make a universal point about the very difficult to understand problem of child rearing. The intricacies of policing the one child policy makes for a seething clash of cultures between the sophisticated city,  educated and able to find rationalism in the policy, and the country, desperate to have a child in their midst at any cost. The former are careful with their procreation, for the most part adhering where possible to the policy, while the latter, driven by desperation, see a market to be exploited. As soon as you make a law you make a law-breaker, and China’s one child policy has brought with it a new kind of child kidnapping that is not for financial exploitation, but for the joys of ‘having’ a child when a couple can’t produce one naturally.

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Babies are now scarce in China, and this has raised their value considerably. As one tragic scene in Dearest reveals, when a man is seeking a permit to have a second child with his wife, he is only allowed to do so if he declares his stolen son (whom they have not been able to find in seven years) dead. Everyone knows the child is not dead, rather they have been stolen to live in another part of the country, raised as some other couples own, but for the first couple to have a second child, they must abandon their connection to the first completely. The tangled injustice of this, not to mention the terrible pain of parents being forced to concede their child to be raised by kidnappers, is just one of the many heart wrenching moments in Dearest that beautifully recreates the hyper emotionalism and intensity around having a child that those of us in other countries can’t begin to understand. If we think Dearest is emotional to the point of schmaltz, it’s probably because we can’t understand what an emotional commodity children have become under those legal conditions.

But the cleverest thing about Dearest, is the positing of its highly emotionally charged first forty minutes as a frantic pair of parents (Huang Bo and Hao Lei) search for their hyper valued stolen child  Tian Peng, only to recover him and have the narrative switch to the perspective of the abductors, or rather one of the abductors (Shao Wei) a chronically undereducated woman from the provinces. Suddenly Dearest becomes a clear conflict of class shedding new light on why children are abducted in the first place. The suspense as Tian Wenjun and Lu Xiaojuan search for their stolen child maintains the stories pace in the first half, but this morality tale is successfully usurped by the logic problem of shared societal values implemented in opposing ways and a contemporary culture that has no power to deal with the complexities of the problem. There is no jilting in the narrative structure and the film flows remarkably well, considering the enormous change of pace, perspective and style seamlessly moving the viewer from the teary emotional plight of the original parents to the endless corridors of slammed doors in the face of the desperate illegitimate adoptive mother. Chan achieves all of this without compromising on the highest moral point, nor does he devalue any of the human stories involved.

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Rather, it is in the inclusion of all the stories that Dearest finds its powerful voice; stories like the anger and desperation of the other parents of the support group who haven’t found their child; the lawyer trying to defend the adoptive mother who has been duped all the way; the multiple marriages under strain as more and more emotional problems are heaped upon them; the convoluted red tape in the process of having a child; the low standard of living brought on by overpopulation, the constant stream of con people willing to give their own child for the reward money; the use and abuse of animal life and so on. It is all these small additions that satellite around the films primary point that give Dearest a universal quality that involves a viewer from any nationality.

Underneath it all is the uncomfortable question about who a child is and what they mean in a broader society. There is no question that Tian Peng has become a commodity. He bares the burden of the intense emotional rights of two sets of parents, to the length that he fully becomes a possession in the final tragic scenes as Tian Wenjun carries him, even has he sleeps, over his shoulder as if he were a bag of gold, or a weapon.

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Of all the desperate scenes in Dearest, this is probably the most damning, the effect all this has on the child. When his birth parents find Tian Peng, he isn’t the same child they lost on the street as many years of his childhood being raised on a poor rural farm have turned him into someone who doesn’t recognise nor relate to them. Tian Pang is forced to carry the burden, not just of the two sets of parents fighting for him, not just the flag of hope for all parents searching for their abducted child, but the backbone of a future China that will have twice the population of old people than it does young to keep the country going. The burden Tian is born into places a responsibility on his shoulders that is unmatched anywhere in the world, and it is this, along with so many other convoluted problems that Chan successfully highlights in his beautiful film Dearest.

Dearest is now showing at The Sydney Film festival. You can get a ticket here. 

Sydney film festival runs from 3-14 June

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