‘One Hundred and Fifty Years of Life’: Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Chinese writer-director Yu Liu’s second film premiered in the New Directors competition at the Spanish festival.

Truly a mouse that roars, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Life (Yi bai wu shi sui de sheng huo) is the brick-blunt second feature by Beijing-based one-man-band Liu Yu. So stripped-down and unadorned to barely register as “cinematic” as that word is now usually applied, it’s a very small film of rare emotional impact. Examining the travails of a 90-year-old man who serves as 24/7 caretaker for his mentally-handicapped 60-year-old son, writer-director-editor-cinematographer-producer Liu has crafted a savagely unsentimental morality tale of quiet, bleakly compelling humanism. While no easy sell on paper, this is the kind of miraculously unexpected find which can and should become a word-of-mouth hit on the festival circuit.

Like Liu’s similarly shoestring-financed 2013 debut The Blinding Sunlight, which enjoyed a small measure of international festival play, One Hundred and Fifty Years of Life contends for the $56,000 New Directors prize at San Sebastian — a sum which represents a 373-fold increase on its reported budget of $150. Some cynical viewers may wonder what on earth Liu spent the money on, as he clearly used such rudimentary video-equipment in a small handful of humdrum Beijing locations, employing members of his own family in the principal roles.

The Bottom Line

Bare, basic, blunt and beautiful.

Front and center is Liu Degui as Mr Han, who in a long, wordless opening sequence is shown dressing and feeding his mute, meek son Chunsheng (Liu Chunsheng) in their humble apartment. This first section has the look and feel of a vérité fly-on-the-wall documentary, and it’s only when Mr Han’s daughter (Liu Chunrong) turns up some twelve minutes in that any dialog is spoken, and the fictional nature of the movie becomes apparent.

While Mr Han is the very picture of stoic, unassuming self-sacrifice  utterly devoted to a child whose mental faculties were devastated by fever in infancy his daughters are callous, calculating and rapacious. Both are impatiently eager to shove their bothersome relatives into a care-home and sell Mr Han’s apartment: “when dad dies, my brother will be such a nuisance,” one blithely muses. Han’s son-in-law (Shang Xinming) is if anything even worse, enmeshed in some shady but lucrative business involving migrant workers, and willing to take drastic action to remove the hapless Chunsheng from the picture.

In another long, wordless sequence just after the hour mark, the son-in-law (most of the characters are unidentified by name) drives Chunsheng to a remote suburb and abandons him like an unwanted mongrel. The camera observes from a distance as son-in-law drives off but then he pauses, perhaps afflicted by a pang of guilt or perhaps a spark of common decency. This superb scene concludes on an unexpected and inspired note that further confirms the son-in-law’s heartless perfidy, as the whirring of insects on the soundtrack rises to a deafening roar of disapproval.

Such subtle stylistic flourishes are very much the exception here. Liu’s direction and screenplay are no-nonsense to the point of minimalism, as when Mr Han is presented with a contract by his daughter detailing the sale of the apartment. His response consists of brushing the paper aside with a curt gesture, and the words “go away” typical of Liu’s ethos of boiling things down to their most germane essentials.

A subplot involving Mr Han’s lodger (Wang Lile) could arguably have been trimmed but this (nameless) young tenant, a former convict now eking out a living as a hotel-chain electrician, provides a welcome wild-card element which gives the sometimes slow-paced One Hundred and Fifty Years of Life a much-needed energy-boost. The swaggering fellow, with his Brandoesque white t-shirt, extensive tattoos and ever-present cigarette, initially comes across as potentially volatile and menacing. But he quickly reveals a heart of gold; it’s his misfortune to be unluckily besotted with a girlfriend (Pu Yingfei) more concerned with materialism than emotion.

The girlfriend’s primary motivation is finding a man who can come up with the necessary “betrothal money” of 200,000 Yuan ($30,000), though she also urgently needs cash to pay for her ailing mother’s medical expenses. The latter is a recurrent element of the film, which depicts and indicts with the clearest of eyes and the simplest of means a 21st century China ravaged by official corruption, state under-funding and interlocking derelictions of responsibility.

With a work of hard-knock intelligence that would surely find favor with Messrs Loach, Fassbinder and Ozu, Liu joins the lineage of directors acutely and minutely concerned with life at the sharp end. Adopting an approach of bracing and uncompromising directness, he dramatizes the tough day-to-day decisions faced by hapless, innocent individuals failed by both the state and their own families, as epitomized by the stubbornly indefatigable Mr Han.

Negotiating the corridors of bureaucracy and the pitiless city streets on his trusty walking-stick, Liu Degui is the beating heart of One Hundred and Fifty Years of Life. “As long as I can breathe I will take care of my son,” he wheezes. Liu incarnates seemingly without an iota of artifice or “acting” a humble but, in the end, overwhelmingly affecting brand of everyday heroism. It’s a genuinely great performance, in a genuinely outstanding film.

Production company: Liu Yu Film Studio
Cast: Liu Degui, Liu Chunsheng, Wang Lile, Pu Yingfei, Liu Chunying, Liu Chunrong, Shang Xinming
Director / Screenwriter / Editor / Cinematographer / Producer / Production designer: Liu Yu
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: Liu Yu Film Studio, Beijing, China (562391968@qq.com)
In Mandarin Chinese
No rating, 93 minutes