Loosely based on a true story, Dearest is the latest feature from director Peter Ho-sun Chan, a box office behemoth in China who has yet to find similar success outside of Asian markets. Dearest is the sort of film that confronts Big Issues by trying to humanize them through personal narrative. Ostensibly, it’s about a young divorced couple whose three-year-old son is kidnapped, which allows the film to delve into China’s staggering problems with child trafficking. But, like the tangled mass of electrical wires in the film’s opening scene, the story about the missing child and his parents is only one of several stories that come together, drift apart, intersect, collide, and otherwise become entangled in the complicated webs of inter-relationship and responsibility that weigh so heavily on the characters.
Aside from the missing boy and his father’s hope-starved quest to find him, there’s also the boy’s mother, now remarried, and her foundering relationship with a new husband. Then there’s the support group the father joins, in particular the support group’s leader and his wife and their own search for a missing child. There’s the woman who becomes a mother to the kidnapped boy – apparently ignorant of how exactly he came to be her son – and another child – an abandoned girl, also the woman’s charge – and the woman’s fight to get both children back. There’s the woman’s lawyer, who has his own problems in an aging mother suffering from dementia. Most of all there is always, always the state and its sprawling bureaucracy, which offers some help and some hindrance in every case.
Despite the many complications (and over-complications) of what could be a very straightforward tale, Chan does an admirable job of making it all work. Practically speaking, there are two central stories: the father’s search for the missing boy, and the boy’s “village mother” and her attempt to win custody of the girl her deceased husband claimed had been abandoned. In that sense Dearest trades the conventional three-act structure for something more like an epic tale, in two parts. The film’s most impressive sequence – a punishing set piece in the village – brings these two narratives crashing violently together. And when the smoke clears we’re left to figure out what’s happened, what’s left, and where the story will go from there. In all this interconnectedness and complexity it’s never hard to follow what’s happening. And though the narrative ins and outs may not be hard to keep track of, it is often overwhelming just how much the movie asks the audience to care about, on both personal and abstract, societal levels.
Visually, Chan makes the most of what’s there onscreen, occasionally using image to evoke the film’s themes and complexities. The tangle of electrical wires is one example. There’s also a bucket of eels, writhing around each other as if one interconnected mass of teeming life. And there’s the color red – a ribbon among the black mass of wires, a balloon breaking free from the rest of a bundle, a rope tied at the top of a burlap sack – flashing suggestively in and out of the narrative.
Perhaps the film’s greatest challenge, at least for audiences outside of China, lies in deciphering tone. Subtitles are of course indispensable, but can’t communicate everything. Largely unfamiliar with the cultural nuance that must color each story – casting a particular balance of light and shade on each character – I often wondered if something subtle had been lost in translation. In particular, being acutely aware that this was first and foremost a “message movie,” I was never sure just how light- or heavy-handed Chan was in delivering that message. Did it ever really, as I sometimes suspected, veer into something that would in my own cultural context resemble a made-for-tv-movie or even a public service announcement, or was it a complex drama genuinely interested in individual human concerns rather than societal ones?