Filial piety is a favourite theme in Chinese cinema, but with an ageing population, increasing distance between parents and children, turbulent economic circumstances, and a rapidly modernising world, questions are being asked about the responsibility owed to one’s family when that responsibility is not always reciprocal. The small-scale tragedy at the centre of Old Beast (老獸, Lǎo Shòu) is that of a man who felt that his various statuses allowed him to ride roughshod over the social order, neglecting other people’s feelings in order to prove his own superiority but only ever reminding himself that he is trapped and empty.
In the arid cities of Inner Mongolia, “Old Beast” Lao Yang (Tu Men) likes to play the big man around town. His business went bust years ago, and now he’s chiefly known as the holder of many debts stolen from men at gaming tables who will likely never be able to make good on their ambitious wagers. With his ill-gotten gains, Yang turns off his mobile to avoid “annoying” calls from his bedridden wife to take a friend out on the town to cheer him up after he explains he’s having a lot of trouble trying to swap his camel for a cow. Yang and his friend spend the night in a “spa”, during which time his wife collapses and ends up in hospital while his grown up children rally round trying to make up for Yang’s constant failings. Still not ready to answer his phone, Yang heads to his mistress’ before he ever thinks of going “home” to make sure his wife is OK.
Yang’s rather depressing life is however about to implode, not least because of his constant neglect of his wife. Yang’s long suffering children have just about had enough – not only are they on the hock for their mother’s medical bills which ought to be their father’s responsibility, but they’re all also suffering because of his bad reputation. Yang’s son-in-law is promised a promotion at work, but warned that Yang’s various disgraces won’t go in his favour while his son’s marriage faces extreme pressure thanks to the increased strain on his daughter-in-law as she attempts to look after her own home and that of her in-laws. Yang thinks that as he raised them, lent them money when times were good, and has been supportive in other ways, he is “owed” all the respect that filial piety demands even though it is clear that any help he gives to anyone else is largely for his own benefit. He thinks only of himself, even stooping so low as to steal the money the children have raised between them to pay for their mother’s operation only to use it to buy a cow to pay back his friend whose camel he sold to a dodgy butcher and then passed off as “beef”.
The children, taking matters into their own hands, eventually stage an intervention, forcing Yang to sign a contract that he will finally change his ways. Affronted, Yang reports his own kids to the police and then takes them all the way to a court hearing which he eventually storms out of when forced to confront his own lack of moral character. The world holds no love for old men like Yang who care little for conventional morality or the feelings of others, seeking only to be “respected” in an attempt to paper over their own feelings of insecurity and self loathing. Yang’s youngest daughter, married and living in the city, has the most filial piety owing to not having been so directly confronted with her father’s misdeeds and so she feels she ought to help him, against the advice of her husband, only to find herself betrayed when a conversation with her sister reveals Yang’s gentle long con. The question remains, considering Yang’s treatment of them, do Yang’s family really owe him anything as a “father” or are they entitled to walk away and leave him to wreak his self-destructive magic on himself alone?
It is difficult to sympathise with Yang whose overwhelming self obsession knows no bounds, but then he is perhaps a product of his times. A chancer and a grifter, one who’s always trying to make deals and come out on top, he’s lost big in the fluctuating economy of the modern Chinese state. Yang feels trapped, dreaming of horses, plains, and escapes as he casts off the “burden” of his family for the easy pleasures of a younger mistress, spas, and gaming tables but he cannot escape himself. The half-built city all around him is a reflection of his own ruined hopes, suspended in a kind of melancholy defiance as a reminder of the hubris of a more hopeful era. Yang cries silently as he watches his family collectively decide he’s not worth it anymore, unable to repair the connections he has failed to forge in a misguided faith that he is owed something for nothing. The world, however, has changed. Even the old will have to pull their emotional weight, or the whole system will come crashing down.
Old Beast screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 3rd July, 9pm.
Original trailer (English subtitles)