Review: A Dog Barking at the Moon
by Jan Lumholdt
- BERLIN 2019: Writer-director Xiang Zi’s accomplished feature debut sheds a sometimes surreal light on a contemporary Chinese family with skeletons in the closet
This being a Chinese-Spanish co-production, it is reasonable to assume that Xiang Zi’s A Dog Barking at the Moon was named with the famous Joan Miró painting in mind. The dog in the painting barks at the moon, which, in turn, looks quite indifferent. There’s an empty ladder in a corner and a blurry bird in motion, possibly being scared away. None of the characters seem to interact; maybe they just happened to wind up inside the same frame.
Similarly, there’s plenty of lost interaction and communication in Chinese writer-director Xiang Zi’s debut feature, screening in Panorama at the 69th Berlinale, which she produced with her husband, Barcelona-born José Val Bal, who also handled the cinematography. Autobiographical elements are suggested in that one of the main protagonists, Xiaoyu, returns to China with a European husband for a family reunion. In fact, both “family” and “reunion” may be optimistic euphemisms here: we have a resigned (in all senses of the word) father, a rather hateful mother and an increasingly perplexed daughter – all of them disconnecting within the frame that life has confined them to.
As the closet doors gradually creak open, the skeletons start cropping up: the father’s same-sex attractions have caused great unrest, as has the mother’s miscarriage before the birth of her daughter – especially owing to the fact that the baby was to have been a son. “A fortune teller once told me my own daughter would become my nemesis,” is a golden oldie from the broken record that the mum likes to put on. She has also joined a “Buddha” cult, devoting the lion’s share of her day, and money, to a cause that seems curiously and quite appallingly un-Buddhist in its intolerance of insight and free thought.
With fine subtlety, Xiang Zi’s script sheds light on current as well as recent traditions and complexities, not least the so-called “one-child policy” programme that was in effect at the time of Xiaoyu’s birth and was abolished only a few years ago, the general wish of all Chinese parents to have a son, rather than a daughter, in order to pass on the family name, and of course, the touchy subject of homosexuality in modern (but definitely not ancient) China. Some of the thorny topics here may pose a challenge to the Chinese distribution of the film and may also explain the European involvement: at least these days, a synopsis, rather than a full script, has to be submitted to the censorship authorities. In this case, they seem to have approved a story that deserves to be told.
And to be seen. Shot in only 18 days, A Dog Barking at the Moon is quite an accomplished achievement, beautifully shot, acted and otherwise executed by all involved. The film’s non-linear timeline provides snapshots of yesteryears, shedding further light on how things came to be. Like the Miró painting, it’s light-hearted as well as dark and, sometimes, more than a little surreal. It’s also funny, sad, uproarious, tender and thought-provoking. Another Chinese-Spanish co-production would be more than welcome one day.
A Dog Barking at the Moon was produced by Acorn Studio (China) and co-produced by Granadian (Spain).
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.