aGLIFF Review: A Dog Barking at the Moon
Chinese-Spanish drama embraces its theatrical magic
By Nick Yeager,
11:59AM, Mon. Aug. 26, 2019
In the first scenes of this film, there is a great deal that we do not know. We do not know that a main character will go on to join a cult. We do not know of the pain and cruelty cycling through her family. We do not know that the film will dissolve into a dreamlike masterpiece, a playwright’s magic captured on camera.
So goes A Dog Barking at the Moon, a Chinese-Spanish feature written and directed by Lisa Zi Xiang, which made its Texas premiere on Friday at the 32nd Annual aGLIFF (All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival).
In this film a surreal, darkly funny, and momentous story unfolds. Three family members dance around one another: Xiaoyu (Nan Ji), the quiet, troubled, now-grown daughter who is pregnant and back visiting with her foreigner husband; Huang Tao (Wu Renyuan), the father whose adulterous homosexuality has been an issue for years; and Jiumei (Naren Hua), the heartbroken, callous mother determined to preserve her marriage at all costs.
When Jiumei joins a new religious group that promotes “familial piety and Buddhism” which she insists will cure her husband’s sexual perversions, Xiaoyu is certain her mother has been brainwashed by a cult. But try as she might to keep Jiumei from spending her money on a scam, she is powerless: Processes out of her control are at work in their family.
“If I had known you’d turn into this, I would’ve strangled you when you were born,” says Jiumei to her daughter in a flashback, one of many cruel things she tells her repeatedly. Back and forth we go, between now and then, as Xiaoyu processes harrowing experiences growing up in their household, soaked with repression of queer desire and the hatred that results in such things.
In one scene, Xiaoyu walks with her husband across a blacktop at her old school, and behind them she can be seen playing as a young girl (Jiang Bing), throwing a paper airplane. She says she used to wonder: If she could throw the airplane far enough, maybe she could get out of her family home sooner. She wondered too, what if it was all a play? What if all the fights in her house were just words from a script? “And at the end of it,” she says, “I just did my part as an actress. I cried. I laughed. I went back home and took a bath.”
Sure enough, the film starts to look more and more like a play. Scenes that would take place in cars instead place the characters on stage sitting in chairs; and in one of the final scenes, a hugely significant conversation is set on a couch in front of massive blue theater curtains.
For a story about endlessly performing, like so many stories of repressing queerness or of playing out feminine gender roles are, both the grand and everyday performances are made striking, magical, and flawed here. Laugh, dance, cry – like actresses do – and thank Zi for this precious work.
All Genders, Lifestyles and Identities Film Festival
Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, 1120 S. Lamar, 512/861-7040
Tickets and info at www.agliff.org.