Among the many concerns of recent Chinese cinema, economic inequality and the fate of the family loom large. Lin Zi’s debut, The Fragile House (海上城市, Hǎishàng Chéngshì), neatly brings the two together in the tale of one ordinary family who’ve managed to carve out a degree of comfort for themselves but at great cost. Economic strain threatens the very idea of family, or at least of “family” as has traditionally been defined. The Huangs pay their respects to their elders and enact the rituals expected of them, but remain mere individuals drifting endlessly without direction in pursuit of an inflated ideal of middle-class respectability.
Lin opens on the most important family occasion of all – New Year’s Eve. The Huangs have gathered together as expected with even oldest son and heavily pregnant daughter-in-law in attendance, but there is an unexpected visitor. Cui Ying’s sister Cui Na has come calling but not to join the festivities – she’s come to claim a debt and is refusing to leave the Huang’s sofa until she gets her money. In an extreme power move, the Huangs have called the police to have her removed – an act of intense pettiness which results in little more than ruining everyone’s New Year by getting half the family detained at the local police station.
Originally from the country, Cui Ying and her husband work for a construction firm but there’s trouble on the horizon because Cui Ying, who seems to be in charge of payroll, hasn’t been given the construction funding by the developers who keep fobbing her off meaning she can’t pay her workers. The workers are understandably upset and angry, some resorting to thieving materials in lieu of their wages while quietly seething with resentment towards Cui Ying who swans around in her fancy car while they can’t pay their bills or feed their families.
Likewise, Cui Na finds it difficult to accept her sister’s excuses when she takes in her lovely middle-class family home. If she really has no money why doesn’t she sell the house or her car? Cui Na thinks it’s adding insult to injury when the Huangs throw a party to celebrate the birth of their first grandchild rather than paying her back, but then holding a celebration on the one month anniversary of a child’s birth is one of the many things which a “family” must do to be a family.
Yet this family is one already divided. Lin splits the screen in three, imprisoning the Huang’s in their own individual bubbles on a night devoted to the idea of togetherness. While Cui Ying and her sons pointedly do not eat their New Year dinner at a table in the back, her husband Jian perches on the edge of the sofa, while her sister remains petulantly all the way over to the side. The Huang’s have worked hard for this house, but this evening is one of the few times they will all occupy it at the same time. Jian will soon depart to play nightwatchman at the yard – they’ve no money to pay someone else to watch the place, while youngest son Chaochao has developed the habit of going to the local internet cafe to play games online rather than come home to an empty house, neglecting his studies in the process.
Though his father is more sympathetic and encourages him to find something else to do if he finds school does not interest him, Cui Ying eventually decides to send her son away, absenting him from the family altogether. She does this in the hope of training him to become a model citizen – something the school’s prominently displayed signs declaring “one lifestyle” seem to promise, but does not stop to consider the weakening bond between herself and her children with her oldest son already in the city and, like she with her own family, only coming home for the obligatory family occasions.
Chaochao seems to have picked up on his parents’ plight, that their constant search for success has left them with little more than constant anxiety and exhaustion. You couldn’t blame him for a desire to drop out, declining to fight a battle it’s impossible win. Lin’s constantly shifting aspect ratios, letterboxing, and colour variations highlight the claustrophobic quality of the Huangs’ existences as they go about their individually boxed lives while clinging fast to the idea of familial connection to provide some kind of framework in an increasingly chaotic world but even this is not immune from the corruption of money and the fragility of the house rests on the very forces which constructed it.
Screened as part of the BFI’s 2019 Chinese New Year programme.
Original trailer (English subtitles)