ByDavid Opie, writer at
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David Opie

It's rather ironic that an industry criticized for its lack of racial diversity relies on other countries to survive, but that's the reality American film studios now face in today's climate. As the Chinese box office continues to surpass its American counterpart, Hollywood is taking steps to ensure its own survival, including an added emphasis on the Chinese market, edits that concede to the Chinese censors and even co-productions that aim to capitalize on appealing to both Eastern and Western markets.

Unfortunately, the box office failure of recent movies such as The Great Wall proves that appealing to both markets is easier said than done. While Zhang Yimou's epic earned $171 million in China, The Great Wall fell drastically short of predictions, grossing just $43 million in North America.

There's nothing inherently wrong with exploring multiple cultures in one film, assuming that whitewashing concerns are dealt with in the planning stages. In fact, recent hits such as the Korean movie Okja have proved that collaborations of this nature can be wildly successful. However, it's also important that national cinema represents the country that produces it in the best way possible. Unfortunately, that's just not the case with The Great Wall, which is why the Chinese film industry needs to start focusing less on American collaborations and more on intrinsically Chinese movies like A Loner (Da Xue Dong Zhi).

A Loner Addresses Contemporary Concerns In China

Directed by Chinese filmmaker Xing Xiao, A Loner recently premiered at the 2017 Shanghai International Film Festival to great success, even earning star Zhu Xijuan a Special Honor Award for her calmly dignified performance in the lead role of Wei Daxue.

While Xiao told us that this was "a phenomena [he] didn’t expect," the truth is that the story of an old woman struggling with isolation is painfully topical in China today. A Loner hones in on this, tapping into the wider issue of loneliness among senior citizens that's grown to epidemic proportions in cities such as Beijing.

According to reports from The Epoch Times, there are over 100 million empty-nesters living in China right now, and estimates suggest that this number could double by 2030. However, this plight is rarely examined onscreen, which is one of the reasons why A Loner resonates as such a powerful viewing experience.

Set to a measured pace, A Loner chronicles the everyday life of Daxue in minutiae, following actress Zhu Xijuan as she performs mundane household chores and spends time with her beloved dog Dongzi — all while trying in vain to keep her daughter on the phone for more than a minute or so at a time.

"My days are spent in a trance. Half awake, half asleep."

While a Hollywood production would have undoubtedly pulled on the heartstrings here with forced sincerity, director Xing Xiao steps back, instead portraying a far more rounded version of Daxue's life in deliberately monotonous detail. Combined with a simple yet elegant style of framing and cinematography, this approach enables the sadder scenes to resonate on an even deeper level. Moments where Daxue briefly joins a group in dance or wanders past a police station hoping for help are tragic, but in a way that feels far more real and therefore more intense than what most audiences are used to.

Zhu Xijuan Is More Elegant Than One Hundred Flowers

A Loner [Credit: Yourpet Pictures]
A Loner [Credit: Yourpet Pictures]

When we discover the awful truth about Daxue's husband, actress Zhu Xijuan reminds us exactly why she was the first to ever win the Hundred Flowers Award for Best Actress back in 1962. Accompanied by simple piano music, the restraint in Xijuan's performance here makes her loneliness all the more heartbreaking. Without overblown theatrics or floods of tears, Xijuan embodies the pain of her character in ways rarely seen in larger productions such as The Great Wall.

Another prime example of this admirable restraint is pictured when Daxue ends a phone call with her daughter by simply saying "I'll let you go." With just four words, all of the complexities entangled in their relationship become apparent at once.

Director Xing Xiao felt lucky working with such a legendary actress, telling us that:

"It was not easy to find the appropriate actress for this role in China... I am very proud. Zhu Xijuan has played with big directors like Xie Jin. Her professionalism is amazing, compared to other stars."

Part of what makes A Loner so special is that the lead actress personally identifies with the plight of her character. Speaking on the issues that the film explores, actress Zhu Xijuan explained to us:

"The elderly lose their contact with their children and with society. This is my personal experience. The elderly are afraid of two things : health and loneliness. I hope the elderly can have an elegant life. We will all be old at some point. So we need to prepare for it. I educated my children so they can take care of me when I’m old, but parents change their mind."

Director Xing Xiao feels that "Box office is not important for the director," explaining that it's far more important that cinema can reveal the impact of social issues "to the biggest audience," something which is commendable in this world of franchise building.

What National Film Industries Can Learn From A Loner

The Great Wall [Credit: Universal Pictures]
The Great Wall [Credit: Universal Pictures]

The relative failure of recent co-productions such as The Great Wall and Inseparable suggests that it's difficult to cater to both audiences simultaneously. A film may succeed in China but fail in America, or vice versa — so what's the answer here? Korean and Japanese movies tend to fare better internationally, and it seems that much of this is down to them not catering to American audiences. Last year, not a single Chinese movie was selected to screen at Cannes, yet Korean filmmakers had their most successful outing in years with films such as Train To Busan and The Handmaiden, both which went on to enjoy international success.

In order to draw in 320 million potential cinema-goers for the long term, Chinese studios must look to films like A Loner for inspiration instead. Sure, blockbusters will still make more money, but diversifying content in a way that feels relevant to modern audiences will do wonders for the Chinese film industry on an international scale. In a just world, films like A Loner would receive their own fair share of awards attention at larger festivals such as Cannes, proving to global audiences that there's more to Chinese cinema than lackluster co-productions with Hollywood.

It's rather ironic that a film starring a senior citizen could inject new life into Chinese cinema on the global stage, but promoting movies that prioritize storytelling like A Loner may be the key to revitalizing domestic cinema on a global level. Much like the old woman in A Loner is ignored and forgotten by the generations that succeed her, so too is the Chinese film industry overlooked too often in favor of internationally popular movies made in North America. Whether films like A Loner will change this for the better or not, let's just hope that the film's central message about empty-nesting reaches a wider audience.

As director Xing Xiao told us:

"If someone calls their parents after having seen the film, I’ll be happy."

(Sources: Cinema Escapist, Hollywood Reporter, The Epoch Times, a) Variety, b) Variety)


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