Filmbrain nearly didn't see Gu Changwei's Peacock (Kong Que), winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. From the brief description he read in the festival guide, Peacock sounded like a typical "festival movie" - a family drama set in mainland China at the end of the Cultural Revolution, with a young, attractive lead actress. What encouraged him to see it was the director -- Gu Changwei -- the highly talented cinematographer behind such films as Ju Dou, Farewell my Concubine, Hurlyburly, and The Gingerbread Man. Though not every cinematographer has been successful with the transition to directing (think Christopher Doyle's Away With Words), Changwei directs with the confidence and maturity of a well-seasoned veteran.
Given its Cultural Revolution setting, one would imagine a political streak running through the film, but it's not to be found at all. The generational conflicts that exist here are rooted in the standard (and universal) problems of teenage rebellion/angst/insecurity, rather than motivated by political fervor. A simple story of a middle-aged couple, their three problematic children, and the bad luck that befalls them -- no life-threatening situations, no unnecessary third-act twists -- just a group of characters so brilliantly written (and acted) that we are content to follow them through their most basic of daily activities -- a feat not easily pulled off. At times it was reminiscent of Hou Hsiao-hsien's A Time to Live and a Time to Die -- a coming-of-age story, centered around a family, narrated by one of the characters.
Though divided into three sections (one for each sibling) the focus is mostly on Weihong, the daughter. Moody, unmotivated, and bored with her life in a small town situated in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, she is constantly being pressured by her mother to find a better job than her current one as a bottle washer. A stint at a daycare center ends badly when she drops a baby, but her spirits are lifted when a troop of paratroopers visits her town, looking for recruits. A chance to escape from her family, her desire increases when she falls in love with one of the paratroopers. Unfortunately, her overzealousness backfires, leaving her as a member of the crowd waving the future heroes goodbye. An end of innocence, Weihong will go through a remarkable series of changes throughout the remainder of the film.
Weihong's older brother Weiguo is both mentally challenged and abnormally obese. Mocked and mistreated by many, he is a major source of suffering for his parents, and one of embarrassment for his siblings. Worried about how he will fend for himself after their death, the parents take desperate measures to find him a wife. Weiqiang, the youngest of the three children (and the film's narrator), is a quiet, intelligent boy who suffers from the family's various ordeals and sees no choice but to flee the town forever.
At just under two and a half hours, Gu takes his time telling the story, but it gives us a greater opportunity to learn more about the characters and the world they inhabit. A scene of the family having a quiet meal on their tiny porch is repeated when the narrative shift changes, and it becomes one of film's strongest images. Though the family must deal with one crisis after another, the film is not about mounting tension, nor is Gu trying to evoke sympathy. It is this that rescues Peacock from "festival movie" status. Each problem is dealt with accordingly, and the family even bands together when necessary -- such as when the coal they are preparing for winter is literally washed away by the rain -- a scene that would appear rather contrived in a lesser film. Though it's fair to call the film a melodrama, the screenplay by Lu Qiang is far from conventional. Weihong's transition from innocent, naive girl to hardened, cynical woman is handled with a delicate subtlety, and Zhang Jingchu deserves a lot of praise for her performance.
With outstanding cinematography that never draws unnecessary attention to itself, Peacock is a film full of surprises, and a powerful debut from a director that we will no doubt be hearing more from. (In fact, Filmbrain just read today that Gu has begun work on a sequel.)