Social commentary on the extensive damage of China’s whirlwind economic rise on its people and society at large is a common theme of recent Chinese art-house filmmakers. Zhou Ziyang’s debut feature Old Beast is no different. What sets it apart is his focus: an intimate look at changing family relationships from an old man’s perspective.
The story is set in Ordos, a boom-bust city in Inner Mongolia. Old Yang (Tu Men) is in his 60s with many flaws. He was once a successful real estate speculator until the local economy tanked. Now broke, he frequents a mahjong parlor and keeps a young mistress by spending money he doesn’t have. Yang is seldom home to help with caring for his ailing, bed-ridden wife, angering his grown children.
Old Yang does have a more tender side. When his buddy Lu, a poor herder from the countryside, comes to visit, Old Yang treats him to a lavish meal and a visit to a massage parlor by pawning his beloved motorcycle. He also buys expensive gifts for his grandson and his mistress. Old Yang even trades his buddy’s sick camel for a healthy diary cow to help improve the friend’s livelihood. Never mind he does all these things by misappropriating other people’s money.
When Old Yang’s children discover that he’s stolen part of the money they collected to fund their mother’s surgery, they decide to lock him up in a cellar to teach him a lesson. Enraged by the humiliation, Old Yang soon takes his children to court, with disastrous results.
The best part about Old Beast, written by Zhou himself and produced by renowned veteran director Wang Xiaoshuai, is its treatment of a very realistic, older character that’s familiar but complex. On first look, Old Yang is a selfish and stubborn old fart that gambles, cheats and plays around – in short, a man who is never home to deal with important matters. He also has a temper and picks fights with everyone. It’s not until we see how he treats his friend and grandson that we see the importance he places on friendship, mutual attachment and his relationship with his grandchildren. He still believes in camaraderie, deep emotional bonds and family ties.
Yet times have changed. And in a fast-paced world where even family bonds are glued together with money, Old Yang’s grown children don’t have much use for him now that the old man is broke. When his son, daughter and their spouses clamor to tie him up, he demands respect by reminding them that he helped find them jobs, financed their weddings and did his part in tending to their sick mother. “Where were you guys when I cared for your mother for the past seven years?” he retorts. His unacceptable behavior, he seems to suggest, is a way for him to vent penned-up frustration at being neglected over the years. His pleas fall on deaf ear, however, as his children tie him up and push him into the cellar.
These grown children, like so many young Chinese portrayed in news stories these days, have neither the patience nor the time to understand needs beyond their own. They see Old Yang as a burden once he ceases to be a “contributing family member.”
Old Beast is not without its flaws. There are several supernatural phenomena in the film that feel gratuitous. At one point, a ghostly white image jumps in the field and, in another scene, Old Yang grabs a crow from out of the wall. Both reflect attempts to depict the main character’s sense of being trapped in a life beyond his control. But they feel forced and distract from the main theme.
The shortcomings, nevertheless, are more than offset by the superb performance rendered by veteran actor Tu, was also a lead in Degena Yun’s A Simple Goodbye (2015). His nuanced depiction of a flawed and frustrated retiring man attempting futilely to capture his pride and former glory won him in 2017 a Golden Horse Award for best actor. Old Beast is a gut-wrenching, honest portrait of the modern Chinese family and a very deserving watch.
Old Beast opens the Chinese Visual Festival on May 3. It will also be shown on May 12.