Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
"The Orphan of Anyang conveys everything one needs to know about two people, their potential relationship and the heartbreak ahead simply by showing them sitting across from each other, eating their separate bowls of noodles. Wang Chao, the writer-director of this remarkably lucid and gripping first feature, has a gift for making images that are pregnant with meaning. A novelist and a former assistant to Chen Kaige, Wang combines the straightforward, (non)acting style of Chen’s early films with the formal reserve and elliptical montage of Robert Bresson. (Like Bresson he almost never cuts on movement.)
Located in a crumbling Chinese city where industrialization now seems no more than a historical parenthesis, The Orphan of Anyang concerns a newly unemployed factory worker who strikes a bargain with a prostitute to care for her infant in exchange for a near-living wage. What begins as an economic arrangement soon leads to familial attachment, but even as we see the man and woman lying in bed with the child between them, we know that their tranquility will be short-lived. Not only is their source of income illegal, but the woman’s former pimp, a brutish petty gangster dying of leukemia, tries to kidnap the baby, claiming it’s his kid. The Orphan of Anyang combines the personal and the political with such subtlety that its devastating critique of the systematic abandonment of people ill-equipped to fend for themselves escaped the Chinese censors’ scissors." — Amy Taubin, Film Comment
Wang and his cinematographer, Zhang Xi, have a gift for composition, balancing the architectural formality of their empty landscapes with determined asymmetry whenever our unlikely hero enters the frame. Dagang and the bawling charge he picks up at a noodle cart are generally relegated to the edges of the screen, and the artful sound design, which abounds with peripheral noise, compounds their marginalisation.
With the entry into the film of the foundling’s tough mother, Yanli, and a thuggish underworld figure (at times reduced to a synecdochic shaven head) the plot thickens, though you wouldn’t know it from the unruffled surface of the movie. And yet the director’s dry editing generates such pregnant ellipses that the viewer is soon deeply involved in the increasingly fraught lives of these four characters. Wang twists his knife very slowly, but you still feel the sting when this quiet, assured film reaches its stunning dénouement. — Andrew Langridge