Reviewed by Hannah Lau
Directed by Zhao Xiang, 3C Films Co., Ltd.
China, 2017, 90 minutes
Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles
Last month, I had the opportunity to catch Hong Kong’s 41st International Film Festival as it screened close to 200 films across the city. As usual, the lineup of films was excellent with lots of variety and diverse cultural representation. Of noteworthy mention was the film Stonehead, a directorial debut for China’s Zhao Xiang.
The film is set in a small village in China where children are raised by their grandparents because their parents have all moved to urban cities for better jobs. These children are often referred to as “left-behind children” who, in this environment, aren’t really being raised—they just kind of exist. Their grandparents are doing their best to keep them fed and clothed but other than that, they navigate life for themselves. Though the movie is set in Guangxi, the family situation and experiences that make up the story are common across rural China. It is a heartbreaking example of how the family unit in China continues to deteriorate in the face of economic growth and urbanization.
The story centers around three main characters who, even though it’s never clearly stated, each represent a different way left-behind children cope with their family situations.
From the film’s opening moment, it’s clear that in response to his sense of abandonment, Stonehead seeks affirmation. Being the top student in his class he proudly receives a certificate of excellence and a brand new soccer ball from the education director. He can only think about showing it to his dad and even refuses to use the ball until then (which is probably during Chinese New Year holiday when parents return home).
With only one phone in the village, the highlight for every child is when they hear their name yelled from the local convenience store to come and pick up a call from their parents. But Stonehead doesn’t just wait for those elusive calls, he makes a point to call his dad, whenever he can. Sadly he never gets through and solemnly returns home to his grandmother who, though doing the best she can, is incapable of understanding the struggles he faces at school, with his friends, and ultimately his immense loneliness.
When his father, in the only conversation we see, announces that he won’t make it home for Chinese New Year, the silence is deafening. In a post-production interview, the child actor who plays Stonehead recalls that while filming that scene, he wanted to say “but I just want you to come home”, but couldn’t as he was overcome with emotion and could only cry silently as he was able to relate to a period in his life when he was also a left-behind child.
If we could all be so lucky as to have a loyal friend like Pouchy. As a left-behind child as well, he copes by pouring everything into his friendships. As Stonehead’s best friend, he stops at nothing to make sure he’s not bullied or hurt, and if Stonehead gets in trouble he’s right alongside him taking the punishment. He endures horrible name calling, having his homework stolen, and even physical fights, all in the name of friendship.
Pouchy has no one else but Stonehead to count on. In this little village, all they have is each other. Which is why later on, it is all the more heartbreaking after Pouchy’s father takes him away to the big city, that he finds out that Stonehead was the one who punctured the soccer ball, the very act that Pouchy was framed and punished for.
Kids can be mean. Kids that are abandoned and hurting can be even meaner. Monkey is the top dog of the class. All the kids revere him, but also seek his approval. He figures this is the best way to survive in this environment. He cannot control being a left-behind child, and no one is around to help him process the hurt nor guide him. But he sure can control the kids at school, and this is where he can feel powerful.
Monkey and his gang spend their time manipulating the other kids, hanging up their parent’s phone calls on purpose, destroying other people’s homework, bullying, and performing poorly in their academics.
Yes, this film is set in a village in Guangxi. And yes, it’s a story about children and takes place in the schoolyard. But in so many ways, this picture reflects China’s society at large.
In the faces of those you pass on the streets in China, you’ll see those coping like Stonehead, Pouchy, or Monkey, battling abandonment, hurt, regret, and hopelessness. The people of China feel stuck in a desperate situation. Regardless of whether they’re rural farmers, migrant workers, urban professionals, the rich and famous, or anything else in between, they have either been left behind or they’re the ones doing the leaving. They strive and toil, hoping to relieve the pain and loneliness in their hearts that can only be redeemed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Films like Stonehead can be disheartening but also, in their own way, encouraging, that those who see this societal issue are giving it a voice, one that will speak out for those trapped in pain and loneliness.
Hannah Lau is a marketing consultant for ChinaSource, managing external communication and marketing processes including social media. Originally from Canada, Hannah served for a time in China where she began her career in advertising. A few years ago she left the corporate sector and took her skills to the non-profit... View Full Bio