Movie Review: In Search of Lost Time (海的盡頭是草原)

Being a filmmaker in China these days is not easy… that is, if you want to make films that don’t necessarily glorify the motherland. In 2016, the Chinese government passed the Film Industry Promotion Law, which bans films that it deems harmful to the “dignity, honour and interests” of the country. That’s why we’ve been seeing patriotic, and often hyperpatriotic, films coming from that country since that time. The days of Chinese films that are in the least bit critical of The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the thing that never happened in Beijing 30-odd years ago (hey, I don’t want to get banned either), the one-child policy, sex-selective abortion or anything else that took place in that country’s past are over, at least for time being.

Hong Kong director Derek Yee/爾冬陞 has now turned his lens on the real subject of ethnically Han orphans who were shipped from China’s southern cities up to families in Inner Mongolia in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The policy, which was known as “Three Thousand Orphans Entering Inner Mongolia”, was designed to alleviate the shortage of food and resources in the south brought on by devastating floods and, um, one of those catastrophic events mentioned above that the movie chooses to ignore. The film’s Chinese title means “Grassland At the End of the Sea” while the English title is taken from the novel of the same name by Marcel Proust, which has a similar theme of reminiscences and recollections of the narrator’s childhood.

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME focuses on one little girl, Du Siheng, whose mother sends her to an orphanage in Shanghai because the woman can’t afford to feed both her and her younger brother, Du Sihan. (The children’s father is “not around”.) Siheng, along with 27 other children at her orphanage get sent up to a commune known as Siziwang Banner in Inner Mongolia where she is adopted by a tough but loving woman named Sa Renna (Ma Su/馬蘇). Renna’s husband, Idel (Ayanga/阿雲嘎), is off serving his country but her younger brother, Namuukhan (Wang Qiang/王鏘), is there to help her tend their flock of sheep. While Siheng finds the transition a difficult one, Renna and Namuukhan continue to shower her with patience and love, and when Idel returns home on leave, he, too, joins in on the lovefest. Siheng, though, only wants to go home to her mother.

The story goes back and forth between the present and past with an adult Du Sihan (Chen Baoguo/陳寶國) heading up to Inner Mongolia to search for his long-lost sister. Their mother is back in Shanghai on her deathbed and he, too, isn’t in the best of health. The question on his and the audiences’ minds is whether Siheng is still alive or has Sihan waited too long to find her.

Coming from a country with its own shameful past when it comes to the treatment of indigenous children and the residential school system, I couldn’t help but think that this program of sending children to live in a new culture was a bad thing but, of course, Yee, who also co-wrote the screenplay, puts a positive spin on it. The Mongolians are all seen as warm and loving people, which I’m sure they were and still are. And, with the exception of Siheng, all the other children adapt exceptionally well to their new situation. Hanging over this story, though, is the question of why Siheng’s mother would give up her daughter and not her son but that, too, is answered in the film’s closing scenes. Get ready to shake your head with this one: She was the stronger of the two children and, therefore, could adjust easier. That would definitely explain why so many girls have been adopted from China over the past three decades. Call me cynical.

The director makes use of colour to evoke the hardships of the past. Shanghai is grey and rainy, while Inner Mongolia has a washed out palette of greys and beiges. Unfortunately, that makes it a bit tough to read the subtitles, which are in white. Yee also throws in a lot of expository dialogue in the story’s first act to bring the audience up to speed on the conditions that may have led to the government sending these children to the middle of nowhere. On the plus side, the performances are all good, especially those by the Mongolian actors. The casting is excellent, too, with the actors playing Siheng and Sihan looking like they could be brother and sister.

While IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME runs a bit long for what it is (it’s just over two hours), it’s not bad as long as you don’t mind the revisionist history lesson. At least you’ll get to see how beautiful the Mongolian grassland is.

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME opened in Hong Kong yesterday (November 17th).

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