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Review: <i>When The Bough Breaks</i>

By Maya Eva Gunst Rudolph

"When The Bough Breaks" (dir. Ji Dan)

Ji Dan‘s When The Bough Breaks, which made its North American premiere last week at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, is a documentary of uncommon scope that drives at the heart of all epic drama: it is a story of a family. Both sweeping in its vast theatrical grasp and unnervingly intimate in scale, Ji Dan’s work unfolds for two and a half hours of deep absorption into a world that, as the director remarked in her presentation of the film at MoMA, “is very different from the one we are living in now.”

Ji opens her film at a low angle, a broad expanse of garbage with people close to the earth, picking and sorting trash. This is the stage upon which the family – a cantankerous man, his blundering wife, and three middle-school-aged children, female twins and a younger son – live in a makeshift shack at the edge of the trash dump. We learn later that the family relocated to this life of scavenging garbage outside Beijing after fleeing their Anhui hometown, one of many specters of loss that hover over the family. The first act crawls towards an establishment of the facts: funding for migrant children has been pulled from the local school and without sufficient tuition funds and sponsorship, the kids won’t see high school, let alone college. The parents are ambivalent, mewling, and often dismissive of the twins’ staunch resolve that their brother, Gang, must attend high school. No matter how unimaginable the struggle, their tenacity drives forth both the tempest of the family’s unrest and the film to a rattling climax.

At the center of the film is Xia, a young teenager whose steely determination to see her brother educated is captured in profile close-ups, the camera zooms to her face as if it wants to transcend her stillness of impassive expression to discover her underlying sense of unswerving focus. Xia’s twin, Ling, is a milder presence, but none of the kids can keep entirely cool in the presence of their father. A disabled, howling man who waves half-drunk baijiu bottles and champions his own power over the family, he is unable to help his children and, while he engages them with both affection and scorn, he doesn’t really seem to want to help anyone. The inevitable clash between the children and their tyrant father finally comes in a Spring Festival crescendo of erupting tensions and eroding confidences, all unfolding in their makeshift home while fireworks clatter outside.

When the Bough Breaks is undeniably a story of today’s China, replete with the horrific inequities of the education system, a dearth of rights for migrants, and the holes in society that prevent generations from seeing one another clearly, but the story feels timeless. The epic of families who endure, who battle both with and against each other, is the stuff of high drama. Ji Dan doesn’t miss a beat with the stage and characters she has selected; each act unfolds with a Chekhovian fury. Amid these intimate character portraits, Ji’s framing of images that circulate through this family’s world is full and precise: from a disgruntled Xia walking past a real estate billboard advertising “Life Without Compromise,” to ants scrambling in the dirt, to the ominous industrial groan of the garbage fields.

There is also much to the story that remains unseen. Allusions to an older sister who vanished without a trace come and go. Then there is Ji Dan’s own presence in the family’s life. As their “auntie” who pitched in the tuition money that made Gang’s education possible, Ji’s fingerprints are everywhere, though – in a move that some may find questionable – she doesn’t ever appear on screen. Still, the frame is occupied with more than enough and amid all the cacophony, the danger of being crushed or forgotten, the discussion of souls and fate that tie Xia and Gang up in knots, what remains, incredibly, is a unanimously fierce devotion to the family, to their survival.

While the theatrical structure and scope of the work presents a particularly histrionic documentary story, there is no denying that the story Ji presents is real life and not one frame feels artificial. A family living among ruins, a vanished sister, the discord of generations, the unspoken gestures of family. It may be theater, but you couldn’t make this up.


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