Zhang Wei Tackles the Sensitive Issue of Autism with Destiny (China, 2016)
Destiny is the third feature by entrepreneur-turned-director Zhang Wei. Following the success of his previous film Factory Boss (2014), a tale of a sweatshop owner that won the Best Actor award at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2014, Zhang again sets his sights on marginalized members of society, this time a mother contending with the difficulties of raising an autistic child in China. The film is amongst the first of its kind to take a hard look at the devastating effects of autism on families – a problem not widely appreciated by many Chinese citizens.
Set in Shenzhen, the birthplace of China’s economic miracle, the 100-minute docudrama focuses on Xi He, a 9-year-old autistic boy who loves nothing more than riding the metro to school. His misbehavior, which ranges from biting classmates, urinating in inappropriate places and getting lost on school campus during class time, however, cause great anxiety and outrage from other parents, who repeatedly try and have him expelled from school.
Xi He’s father sells television parts for a living and is always busy. Shouldering great pressure from all sides, Xi He’s mother Tian Lin pleads and argues with the other parents, even resorting to violence at one point in desperation. She doesn’t want to listen when they insist Xi He should go to a “special” school, adamant that he’s entitled to a “normal” education. When her efforts fail and Xi He is finally kicked out, Tian quits her much-needed bank job to teach him herself. Everyday, she takes Xi He to a metro stop, turning it into their public classroom.
Toward the end of the film, during a trip back to Tian’s ancestral countryside home, the audience gains some insight into why Tian seems so selfish. Her older brother also has autism, and Tian can’t escape the curse of her DNA and a life destined as a caretaker to autistic family members.
Destiny is not a film meant to entertain. In fact, the grimness of this family’s struggle with the disease is sometimes hard to watch. But it’s an important look at a worthwhile issue. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that autism affects up to 10 million people in China. And while 20% of them are children between newborns and age 14, most autistic children are placed in private schools out of sight from society with minimal support, Destiny director Zhang says. “In the West, in the US for instance, if you have an autistic child you can expect help of government, or at least partial help, to handle the problem or to provide care for your child,” Zhang said recently at his Beijing residence. “But not in China. The most the government offers here is some money, and you are expected to find your own solutions,” he added.
“If you find a family member suffering from autism, then your life view and values will undergo great changes because you will be left without hope, much less personal aspirations,” Zhang said, adding that his goal is not to criticise but to shine a light on a little understood community so people can pay more attention to the schooling and care of autistic children and perhaps help find a solution.
If Zhang’s goal is to garner more sympathy and win hearts for a mother so gung-ho to place her autistic child in a regular school rather than a “special” school, then the film could have benefited from a little more insight into this type of school. As a viewer, you’re left wondering whether these schools are so dysfunctional that they warrant such a strong rejection. Even if they are imperfect, it would be helpful to better understand where Tian’s prejudice comes from. This omission left the film hanging a bit, and reduces our appreciation for the mother character even if we can understand her desire for Xi He to be with “normal” people.
That said, Destiny succeeds in enlightening the audience to the gravity and social complexity of this disease in China. To prepare himself in tackling such a broad topic, Zhang said he spent almost eight years researching autism, interviewing, visiting schools and following the lives of some 500 families spread across Beijing, Qingdao and Guangzhou. His commitment shows.
In the film, we meet three people with autism: nine-year-old Xi He, his 16-year-old school friend and Xi He’s 50-year-old maternal uncle. Xi He’s school friend lives alone with his aging grandmother who lacks the energy to run after the trouble-prone boy and uses the school much like a baby-sitting service. Xi He’s uncle, meanwhile, is kept in a metal cage like an animal to “keep him safe,” both from others and himself. Such treatment of patients in China’s countryside, where resources are often scarce, is both shocking and heartbreaking. Through these vignettes, we catch a full glimpse of what lies ahead for a boy like Xi He.
Destiny also delivers on the acting front. Liang Jingke, chosen from over 20 actresses, does a stellar job playing the devoted but desperate mother of Xi He bent on changing his life and her own, even though she knows she’s fighting a lonely and losing battle.
Destiny will premier on February 28, 2017 and run to March 12 in San Jose, California, as part of the Official Narrative Feature Competition of the 27th Cinequest Film and VR Festival.