A grieving father and orphaned little boy eventually find mutual solidarity in an increasingly duplicitous society in Bai Zhiqiang’s warmhearted road movie, Like Father and Son (拨浪鼓咚咚响, Bōlànggǔ Dōngdōng Xiǎng). Travelling the modern China in search of the boy’s missing father, the pair encounter only greed and selfishness but discover perhaps something in each other that repairs their sense of despair as they bond in their shared sense of loneliness, each in their own way “left behind” and looking for someone who’ll look for them.
Pedlar Guoren (Hui Wangjun) makes a living transporting goods from the cities and selling everyday items to customers in remote villages, even running a digital portrait service for those without access to photographic equipment most of which seem to get used for funerals. It’s in one such village that he first encounters little Madou (Bai Zeze), a “left behind child” raised by his grandmother but rejected by the other kids and longing for his absent father to return. Having overheard Guoren mention that he’s headed to the town where he believes his father is working, Madou tries to catch up to him in the hope of giving him his school report to show his dad so he’ll come back but is unsuccessful. When his grandmother suddenly passes away leaving him all alone, the other villagers seemingly rejecting him, Madou decides to take drastic action stowing away in the back of Guoren’s van only to be discovered after accidentally setting off a box of firecrackers and setting fire to half of Guoren’s stock. Though reluctant, Guoren ends up agreeing to take the boy to find his father in the hope of gaining compensation for his lost merchandise while half suspecting that Madou’s dad may have already moved on.
Embittered and cynical, Guoren is consumed by grief for his young son who passed away of an illness, displacing his hurt by channeling his pain into anger towards an old friend who he believes cheated him out of money he could have used to pay for additional medical treatment. Perhaps for these reasons he has ambivalent feelings for Madou, at times despite himself sorry for him but also fed up, irritated to have been saddled with his boy when so cruelly robbed of his own. He doesn’t really mean it, but Guoren often cynically suggests selling Madou into China’s child trafficking network if he can’t get someone to accept responsibility for him by paying compensation for all stock that he destroyed.
The frequent, if sarcastic, references to child trafficking are only one example of the ills that plague the modern society. During their journey, the pair find themselves stuck in the mud and despite working together are unable to free the truck only for a passing motorist to stop and offer to help but only for a small fee. Stopping off in a small town, Guoren allows another shop owner to “borrow” Madou for a short period only to discover him being forced to beg in the street with all the money going straight into the shopkeeper’s pocket. Migrant workers they question looking for Madou’s father soon descend into a mass argument about unpaid debts and who owes who, while other labourers hold up cardboard signs featuring their skills in the hope of being hired by passing vans.
Madou is himself a “left behind child” one of many in modern China raised by grandparents in the country while the parents work in the cities to provide for them. Lonely, Madou longs for his father and blames himself for his continual absence. Guoren meanwhile also blames himself for the death of his son but vows revenge on his friend in order to avoid facing the pain of his grief. They are each in a sense left behind, little Madou breaking down in despair in the realisation that he is entirely alone, that he has no more family and nobody wants him while Guoren clings fiercely to the memory of his son. Awkwardly bonding as they travel, Madou picking up a talent for market selling, the pair eventually develop a sense of connection that begins to heal their familial wounds, Gouren discovering a surrogate son while Madou finds the father figure he’d been looking for. A warmhearted yet also melancholy tale of intergenerational bonding Bai Zhiqiang’s gentle familial drama may find itself in an increasingly greedy and self-interested society but eventually allows a ray of hope in the genuine connection between the orphaned boy and grieving father.
Like Father and Son streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)