Director Wang Xiaoshuai offers up a tale about a young man who finds himself in over his head when he is deported back to China for the second time, in large part due to a failed marriage. With little hope of success in his small hometown, Er Di attempted to follow the conventional wisdom that America (more specifically, the USA) is the dream destination for him to make it big. He gets married and fathers a son but the social status of his in-laws as restaurateurs gives them an advantage in getting rid of him. Simply put; if he won't sign a contract giving up the rights to his son, they'll turn him in. Disavowing the marriage, they soon find a way to get rid of him anyway (after catching him with his son) and the movie begins with him back in his hometown sometime later (this all took place prior to the movie's start).
His family and potential lover see him as listless and a waste of space but it's not until his now five year old son is visiting from America that he finds the impetus for change. He very much wants to see the child but the in-laws refuse, and they have the wealth, even in China, to prevent him from seeing the kid. Torn between doing the right thing (establishing ties with his son; China being a very family oriented country in terms of social customs) and wandering off with his circus troupe girlfriend, he follows his heart rather than his head as opposing forces attempt to use him to their advantage. The local administrators want him to give lectures to others thinking of leaving for the glamour of the USA, his father wants him to make a life for himself and stop freeloading, and his in-laws want him to leave the child alone. The story actually focuses on Er Di figuring out what he wants and that makes the basis for an interesting little movie shot in mainland China. Here's what the back of the DVD case said about the movie:
"Would-be immigrant Er Di is back in China, expelled from the United States for working illegally. While in the U.S. he had fathered a child, and when his American-born son comes to China for a visit, Er Di is barred from seeing him. At the same time, Er Di becomes involved with the beautiful member of a touring Shanghai opera company. Caught between his past and his future, his son's culture and his own, Er Di seeks bonds with both." In short, it was a simple movie about a simple subject, with the insight of an excellent director. The Production Notes on the inside cover speak volumes about the story too:
"The idea for this story came from a friend who went to the U.S. and came back after getting married and having a child there. Family problems began to occur and eventually he couldn't even see his own son. His story affected my greatly. Then recently, a car full of dead Chinese stowaways was found near the border of some country.
That got me thinking: why is that we are in the 21st century, but so many people are still trying to run away to other countries? I felt a touch of tragedy there. Throughout the years, the Chinese had been immigrating to other countries and there must be a lot of similar incidents. Also, I set the story against the backdrop of stowaways. He can't go to the other shore again, and with the loss of family ties, the sense of loneliness is even more profound.
I wish that the protagonist in the film still comes across as an individual case, which is why I set the film in an area where stowing away has become a social problem and the government is concerned. This way, the fate of the protagonist has even more impact.
This film is not just about stowaways. Stowing away is an action, and behind the action are the backgrounds and the consequences it brought on the people and family around. When I was young, seeing people going on train trips, I noticed that the travellers and those sending them off were crying. Thinking about it today, a train trip is nothing, but people at the time considered it like a last goodbye. It was in fact a sign of backwardness.
In the 1980s and 90s, the trend of going overseas was also like that. Going to the other end of the world – a big deal! The entire country would change. We had some film and television dramas that depict the overseas experience, but we seldom had anything that took the story back to China. What I wanted to say is, when something like this happens to a family that is unable to fight against societal forces in terms of both social status and consequence, it's a tragedy of the entire people. This is the case with the son's family, which appears to have the ability to control its life because it has the established roots in the U.S.
This film is more subdued that Bicycling Beijing. It can even be considered as pursuit for emptiness, a kind of emptiness that results from a life with no aim and no ideals. The questions are blowing in the wind, with no answers. It's a little like The Days."
I'm not going to kid you and suggest I understood all the layers of the movie and initially, it went so slowly that I almost gave up on it but after watching it about halfway through, I started to see where the director was coming from. Let's face it; as someone living the American dream, I'm all too willing to accept that this is the life for everyone. The surprise ending was kind of intriguing given all the problems Er Di had but not all that surprising considering the enormous burden put upon him from his family and social group alike. In a society built on ancestor worship and conforming to the needs of the many, individuality sometimes gets lost in ways that I could never really appreciate. I'm of the opinion that the DVD was worth a rating of at least Rent It or maybe more, depending on your familiarity with the circumstances the characters went through. Once again, Film Movement offers up a movie that makes us think rather than rely on special effects or star power of the cast. Check it out!
Picture: Drifters was presented in 1.85:1 ratio widescreen color as originally filmed by director Wang Xiaoshuai for distribution by Film Movement. It was a low budget movie shot in Mainland China but looked surprisingly decent compared to many much more resource intensive flicks I've seen from the company. There was some grain, a bit of video noise, and a realistic lighting set up that relied on the natural look of the various locations than most films these days do. I didn't see any compression artifacts and the sometimes stark look of the scenes reflected on the subject material at hand. I only wish it were presented in anamorphic widescreen which it wasn't.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo Mandarin with optional English subtitles. I can't speak for the accuracy of the translation but it seemed to accurately reflect the visuals on the screen. The separation of the two tracks was minimal and the dynamic range was nothing special but again, it worked well within the scope of the material and the little bits of music woven into the mostly lifeless dramatic tone helped convey a sense of otherworldness that helped me appreciate the movie as a whole.
Extras: The best extra on any of the Film Movement series is the film short they all include. This month's offering was from the USA by director Ted Passon called Robot Boy, a story about a kid whose parents upgrade with mechanical parts from his birth until present day in order to improve on mother nature. While it looked like it had a budget measured in pocket change, the story itself was interesting to me and provided food for thought. There were also some trailers and biographies for the main feature but the film short was the only one worth mentioning in detail.
Final Thoughts: Drifters is a movie that'll have to take some time and sink in for me but I'm glad I got the chance to see it. From the initial discussion of the death of a fellow stowaway whose plans went wrong ("Monkey") to the manner in which Er Di tries to assert his individuality against the authorities when pressed to the limit by an uncaring society, the movie had a lot of potential to move me. It didn't always work out as well as one would hope but much of that seems to be due to my personal questions about the subject matter, especially where the repeated interjection of newscasts about China joining the WTO (World Trade Organization) that I'm sure meant something but wasn't sure quite what. Feel free to email me if you catch the movie and have some additional comments.