Feng and Lou are an elderly Chinese couple living in a Shanghai apartment. They have been married for 46 years, with Lou steadfastly standing by her husband throughout all manner of struggles and challenges – including an exile to Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. Now at 88 years old she has Alzheimer’s, and barely recognises anybody except for Feng.
Please Remember Me is a feature length documentary by Zhao Qing, who spent three years documenting her great uncle and great aunt as they went about their lives in Shanghai before moving into an aged care facility. It is an intimate and gentle, unobtrusively observant without ever aggressively pushing a specific agenda. It never needs to: Feng and Lou work as a strong example of China’s expanding aged population. Lou’s Alzheimer’s is steadily increasing, Feng is growing frail and his son from a previous marriage lives in Australia and rarely visits. As the traditional Chinese family units break down, what is to become of the millions of Fengs and Lous living in China’s cities? These are big social issues, and Zhao makes a smart choice in illustrating the large scale problems through a very personal lens.
It is a powerful and often heartbreaking depiction of dementia. By shooting the documentary over a prolonged period, Zhao can depict the gradual disintegration of Lou’s memory. At the beginning she is forgetful but emotionally sharp. As the documentary goes on, she begins to fall into loops, repeating the same statements over and over. It’s clearly maddening for Feng, and for any viewers familiar with dementia it is depressingly familiar stuff. Zhao’s hands-off treatment of Lou’s condition works tremendously well. It is neither sentimentalised nor exploitative. One assumes Zhao developed a particularly strong rapport with her elderly relatives, as the film never feels invasive. Instead it feels both welcoming and personal.
The documentary balances itself between Feng and Lou. In the case of Feng it is an insightful look at life in a carer role. He loves his wife and does his best, but he is painfully aware that he is working on borrowed time. His own health declines at one point, bringing the risk of caring for Lou on his own into sharp relief. He is a charming intellectual, with his conversations peppered with reference to classical Chinese literature and philosophy. The cultural context may be different to many international viewers, but the archetypal grandfather personality is immediately recognisable to almost anyone.
Zhao’s filmmaking is straight-forward and effective. She grounds the film very well in its Shanghai setting through nicely timed and framed shots of the city skyline. It is also nicely paced and edited – although to an extent the passage of time feels a little blurry from scene to scene. That is a common complaint for this sort of observational documentary.
By the documentary’s conclusion, what comes through with the greatest clarity is not the broader social issues or the medical challenges of Alzheimer’s. Instead it is simply the love: Lou’s love for Feng, expressed through a growing cloud of confusion, and Feng’s enormous love for Lou, doting for her without pause as she slowly degenerates in front of him. It gives Please Remember Me a remarkable heart, plus a much-needed glow of warmth in an otherwise depressing situation.
Please Remember Me receives its UK premiere at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 6.