Beijing Man | Chicago Reader

Beijing Man

Qin Zhiyu's 1999 adaptation of the celebrated play by Chinese writer Cao Yu may be too melodramatic for Western viewers, but the genre conventions employed—hyperventilated acting, lingering shots for emphasis, and a folk aria that sums up the story's moral—should be familiar to mainland Chinese audiences. The setting is the early 1930s inside the Zeng family's cloistered, crumbling compound in the heart of Beijing, where the proud aristocratic clan is on the verge of bankruptcy. Qin opens up the dialogue-heavy play by adding scenes that show the everyday life and psychological dynamics of a family whose patriarch is disappointed with his opium-addicted son and scoundrel son-in-law but comes to rely on his son's wife and a niece who's been in love with the son. Outside the wall, the nouveau riche merchant next door is looking to take over the Zeng estate. The symbolism makes it clear that the Zengs represent the decadent old order—a China as much a relic as the ancient bones of the Peking Man—and the only recourse for its progressive young members is to escape. Director Qin does an excellent job conveying the household's tense, conspiratorial ambience and the desolation of its inhabitants, but the overwrought theatrics and flat visuals prevent the film from being a Chinese version of The Magnificent Ambersons. With Li Jing and Lu Liping.

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