The directorial debut of Chinese filmmaker Xiang Zi, A Dog Barking at the Moon (再见 南屏晚钟) is a slow but striking family drama that depicts a woman’s spiral into radical beliefs in order to keep her estranged family together. One of few Chinese filmmakers to evade heavy censorship and explore LGBT identities in Chinese culture, Xiang takes an intimate look at the destructive impact of saving face on familial relationships.
Unfolding through a non-linear narrative, we witness the life of Jumei (Naren Hua), at first a young woman living with her best friend, and later a wife and mother, weeks from her retirement. When Jumei’s daughter Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) returns from the US with her foreign husband to give birth to their first child, it becomes clear that there is unresolved tension between the mother and daughter. Through flashbacks and strained conversations at the dinner table, we learn of Jumei’s revelation, decades ago, that her husband (Wu Renyuan) was having an affair with a man. Though Xiaoyu has known about this since she was a child, and encourages her parents to divorce and live happier lives, Jumei is resolute in her belief that her husband’s homosexuality can be cured, and that divorce would only bring greater shame upon the family. Instead, Jumei finds herself allured by a Buddhist cult, whose practices she believes will be the key to her husband’s salvation.
A Dog Barking at the Moon is minimalist in tone, preferring to keep its drama simmering away beneath the surface. Here the cinematography plays a key role in emphasising the austere domestic space, through agonisingly long, static shots that trap the characters within their suffocating environment. There is little movement, focusing instead on the endless conversations and silences as mother and daughter struggle to see eye to eye. Actresses Nan Ji and Naren Hua are a compelling match, and Zhang Yinyue’s appearances as young Xiaoyu add further layers to their strained relationship that has festered since childhood. The overwhelming reliance on dialogue does cause the film’s run-time to drag in the latter half, but Xiang’s resistance from relying on melodramatic action is admirable. Reprieve is instead provided by a number of inexplicable fantasy sequences that place the characters out of chronology altogether, as time seems to blur in moments of heightened emotion.
Perplexing and often frustrating, Xiang’s film is an impressively-crafted, introspective mediation on family and tradition. Xiaoyu’s family is certainly not unique; she learns that her father’s lover is marrying a lesbian to validate the birth of her baby through IVF with her girlfriend. There is no clear answer to the cultural tribulations presented by A Dog Barking at the Moon, but the narrative instead presents an honest account of a family’s complex struggle to understand one another.
by Megan Wilson