20 September 2008 | DICK STEEL
A Nutshell Review: Shi Qi
Watching the movies in the festival to date, it's quite amazing how the first or early films of the directors in attendance are of immense quality, and whilst Joe Chow may be the youngest in the country currently, his Shi Qi definitely stood out as if it was a movie made by an assured veteran at the helm. Set amongst the She minority tribe, this film is essentially a mother and son story which I felt I haven't seen much of (usually father-son), and with the casting of Joan Chen, it's no doubt that her star factor would have helped piqued curiosity about this film.
At its core, it's about the said relationship between titular character Shi Qi (Sam Chow) who at the onset we see is at odds with his mother's perhaps stifling upbringing, and one made complicated by Shi Qi being abandoned to foster parents when he was a toddler, and reclaimed by Mom when he was 10. To add fuel to the resentment, his foster parents have adopted his childhood friend Tian Yi (Vision Wei) instead, and watching him grow up with opportunities that could've been his own, just leaves a bad taste as he's stuck rooted in the village by Mom, and can't express his frustrations other than to rely on his talent for woodcarving.
Sam Chow breathes inner frustration in his role as the teenager yearning to see the world outside, and the deep profound unhappiness he festers toward his Mom. It's easy for teenagers to identify with this, given the living under the thumb and watchful eyes of a parent whom you know you're the center of the world to her. And when parents get in the way and in the process causing you to miss opportunities, you'd sure would raise a ruckus. So while living a sheltered life, Shi Qi decides to leave the village, even though he doesn't exactly know how.
What shone in the movie is the getting down to basics instead of trying to bite off more than it can chew, and through that sincere exploration of the relationship between mother and son, you're likely to see some parallels perhaps that would ring a bell on your own, at how sometimes we hurt the ones we love most without even realizing it. For the mom, her taking care of her son would seem to mean having him always by her side, though understood that she has lost him once, and would pain her if it happened again, thus her desperation in holding him back through some really adorable, and unworkable antics. And to the son fast growing up, his lack of acknowledgement toward his mom's good intentions, and his frequent brushing of her aside, would touch the hearts and make one feel guilty if one had done this insensitive act from time to time.
Joe Chow managed to bring out the anxieties of both characters in their road trip on foot over a period of two days, where they had to trek the picturesque mountainous road from village to the nearest town where the city bus plies. Along the way, this reaching out and connection come to a role play of sorts, with each character taking turns to lead, or to try and turn the tables on each other, finding something to connect, or to bridge an understanding. The movie relied tremendously on the chemistry between the two actors to pull this off, and they were excellent par none. The score was hauntingly beautiful, and the film also captured the seldom heard, and dying art of the She tribe songs and music, which added a documentary like dimension to the film.
Audiences here would likely be familiar with Joan Chen, especially when she had graced the screen in a number of local releases. Despite similar mother roles in movies such as The Leap Years, Home Song Stories and even Saving Face which I enjoyed, she brings to the table different qualities in those motherly roles, but I dare say her performance in Shi Qi ranked the best amongst all. She truly brought out the adage that a mother's love knows no bounds, and I guess without a doubt, you'll see a lot of the general motherhood qualities here put under the spotlight, that will make you think through some of the things you would have taken for granted. Not to mention too the amount of nuances she put in the role, that would likely demand a repeat viewing (I smiled ear to ear when she quickly put her fingers to her ear when they retracted after touching a hot pot).
While it's a small movie in the sense that it doesn't have big set sequences, it's nonetheless one that packs a powerful emotional punch, and captured plenty of heartfelt emotions and sincerity in its story, that it is difficult not to fall in love with it as well.