“How come she doesn’t cry?” a mother anxiously asks, still on the table following a caesarean section, “don’t worry, it’s a matter of time”, the doctor reassures her. Representations of LGBTQ+ life in contemporary Chinese cinema are few and far between, which might be one reason why the famed dragon seal does not appear before A Dog Barking at the Moon (再见 南屏晚钟, Zàijiàn Nán Bīng Wǎn Zhōng), a Spanish co-production and the autobiographical first feature from Xiang Zi. A melancholy contemplation of the various ways a repressive social system can echo through generations, Xiang’s film quietly suggests that one form of authoritarianism breeds another and that if conformity comes at the cost of happiness then it’s a price not worth paying.
Heavily pregnant Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) has returned to China from the US with her Western husband (Thomas Fiquet) to have the baby under better medical conditions, but it appears that an extended stay with her parents may not exactly be a cause for celebration. Though her mother Jiumei (Na Renhua) originally seems cheerful and happy to see her daughter, it’s clear that there is frostiness between the two women and distance within the marriage. Gradually we discover that the iciness which pervades the Huang home is born of a sense of resentment and betrayal which stems back (partly, at least) to Jiumei’s discovery that her husband, Tao (Wu Renyuan), is a closeted homosexual after discovering him with his male lover.
That does not, however, quite explain Jiumei’s ambivalent attitudes to her daughter. “I haven’t had a happy day since you were born” she’s fond of saying, regretting that she didn’t strangle her at birth after hearing from a fortune teller that Xiaoyu would be her “nemesis”. The allegorical quality of Jiumei’s story about going off the dog because he came to love her husband more is certainly not lost on Xiaoyu, awkwardly asked to translate for her husband, swinging between pity and resentment, as bound by social norms as her mother in feeling obliged to take care of a woman who does nothing other than reject her.
Xiaoyu has long thought her parents should separate, but it never seems to happen. Her father tells her that he worries what will happen if they do. Jiumei says she wants to go to the US and live with Xiaoyu who can hardly refuse, but Tao knows that his wife is not an easy woman and the effect of her constant presence could prove detrimental to the state of his daughter’s marriage. Even so, Xiaoyu thinks it would be the best thing for all of them, if only to escape the never-ending hell of their cycle of bitterness.
Jiumei, meanwhile, has found refuge elsewhere – in the arms of a shady Buddhist cult. Jiumei believes that her husband is “mentally ill”, blaming his mother for some sort of past trauma that’s made him the way he is. The cult preaches filial piety, family values, and loyalty to the state, and is always ready to “help” in return for “support”. Hoping to buy her way into a more respectable life, Jiumei donates vast amounts of money in the hope of meeting the mysterious Master Zhao who, it is claimed, can “amend” her husband’s sexuality and therefore fix all of the other problems in her life.
“Gossip can bury you alive” we later hear Jiumei exclaim in a flashback, talking about about something else and perhaps explaining why she’s so desperate that her marriage of convenience be a superficial success. From the outside the Huangs are an ideal couple, wealthy and successful, and so their society tells them they shouldn’t complain. Having suppressed her own desires, complaining that Tao has been “impotent” for most of their marriage, Jiumei is angry and resentful of those who are unable or choose not to do the same. Meeting Tao’s lover, Xiaoyu laments that what Jiumei most wants is never to separate from her father until the end of time, but does not quite know the essential truth of it until an unexpected and all too brief moment of candour from her distant mother. Xiaoyu’s hand wants to reach out to her, but there is a barrier between them which it seems cannot be breached.
Moving between Jiumei and Tao’s early courtship and the present day, moments of elliptical symmetry present themselves. Fengxi (Chen Zhengyuan), Tao’s younger lover, is it seems himself about to be married and become a father. Xiaoyu meets with him and explains that she is not in any way against their relationship, but pleads with him not to enter a marriage of convenience and ruin a young woman’s life, as her father did, solely for the sake of passing on the family name. He is quick to correct her that he would never consider it, his fiancée is a lesbian who wanted a child with her lover, he is merely helping them out while getting everyone’s parents off their backs.
Fengxi refuses “to build happiness over someone else’s sorrow”. Meanwhile, a long time in the past, someone asked Jiumei what the point was in marrying and having children to live a life you don’t believe in, but she could only answer that marriage was a matter of finding someone who fit the role more than it was of love. Jiumei has been playing her role at the cost of her soul and it’s left her lonely and bitter. Internalised homophobia has ruined them all, forcing them to live lives of empty conformity with only the cold comfort of having fulfilled their duty to society. Jiumei resents Xiaoyu because she is the symbol of the price she paid to lead a conventional life, doubling down on her bet for normality, and passing on that same, misery inducing repression to her daughter. Xiaoyu seems to have escaped by going abroad, but even if her husband tries to convince her that her parents’ lives are not her responsibility, remains equally bound by a sense of obligation now given new weight by her impending motherhood. Xiang ends with a heartbreaking dream sequence in which all can dance together, joyfully embracing their true selves free of shame or anxiety, but as others retreat from the rain some choose to stay, sitting all alone in darkened rooms knowing it is they themselves who elected to turn out the light.
Original trailer (English subtitles)