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Back to the North (向北方)

A Film Review

Back to the North 

Reviewed by Hannah Lau

Directed by Liu Hao, Beijing Golden Pictures Co. Ltd.
China, 2015, 120 minutes
Mandarin Chinese; Chinese and English subtitles
San Sebastian Film Festival: 2015 Official Selection
Trailer can be viewed on YouTube

There’s little that hasn’t been said about China’s former one-child policy and as the country navigates the aftermath there appears to be more to show than to tell. One of the ramifications is the growing number of lost families (estimated 1 million families)—Chinese parents who experience the death of their only son or daughter.

Thirty years—a generation’s worth of time—after the policy was first implemented is where Beijing-based director, Liu Hao, begins the conversation. As also the writer of the feature film, Liu builds an engaging story around this timely social issue, allowing viewers to get personal with what’s really happening in China.

The main character, Xiao Ai, is a young, fabric-factory worker who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Knowing she doesn’t have much time left to live, she is concerned that her parents will become a lost family, having no one to take care of them once she’s gone. While keeping her illness hidden, she attempts to persuade her parents to have another child.

As the story unfolds, so does a web of complicated relationships, which together provide an accurate snapshot of China’s current societal dynamics. There’s the forlorn mother and estranged father who have been keeping up the appearances of a marriage for years. There’s the classic disapproving tension between the mother and the grandmother. There’s Xiao Ai’s world of friendships from the factory that bring about love and betrayal. All of these situations demonstrate the gripping strength of Chinese cultural values especially within the family.

Social commentary aside, Back to the North is a work of art. Beautifully shot in black and white, Liu applies his photographer’s eye to the composition of every scene. Viewers get an endless supply of stunning scenery from Inner Mongolia, Wuhan, and Heilongjiang. The role of music, a mix of Chinese, French, and Russian classical themes, is also significant in this film, contributing to a consistent feeling of nostalgia.

Early on I thought Xiao Ai’s plan to get her parents back together was rather naïve. But as I continued watching, I realized that it was not naïvety that was driving her but pragmatism. By the end, I wasn’t thinking about the effects of the one-child policy anymore. I was thinking about the people of China who are struggling through a gamut of social issues, trying to build a life while wondering at the same time what it all even means. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film but much is conveyed. True to Chinese culture, more is said in silence than in word.

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Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau was born and raised in Canada. Growing up with immigrant parents from Hong Kong gave her a rich perspective on both Eastern and Western cultures. She has spent her adult life in Asia, beginning in China serving through work in the marketplace. With a colorful and hard-earned career in …View Full Bio

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