“What’s right or wrong doesn’t matter anymore. Being at peace is what matters.” an old man insists, attempting to help his troubled companion regain a sense of himself at the end of his life. A magical realist fable, Yang Pingdao’s My Dear Friend (好友, Hǎoyǒu) quite literally sends its elderly heroes back into the past as if they had become unstuck in time but also bears witness to the inexorability of fate as events seem only to repeat themselves from one generation to the next.
The film begins, however, with a literal intrusion of the present into the past as city girl Jingjing (Gabby So) drives her red saloon car, more suited to a morning commute than a trek through the mountains, into a rural village, rudely barging into the home of elderly couple A-Fang (Jiang Hong) and Shuimu (Luk Suk-Yuen AKA Robert Loh) in search of their grandson Yiming. Jingjing claims that she is pregnant and Yiming is the father, but now he’s ghosted her so she’s come to make him assume his responsibilities. Unfortunately Yiming isn’t there, but rather than scandalised or ashamed as one might have assumed them to be, A-Fang in particular and her husband seem to be both relieved and excited to the extent they don’t really want Jingjing to leave which might explain why her car won’t start the next morning.
While staying with the elderly couple, Jingjing hears that absent fathers run in the family. Shuiming’s father disappeared suddenly without warning or explanation leaving his mother to raise him alone, while his son also abandoned Yiming to run off with an impoverished bar hostess who had four children of her own. Yiming’s mother remarried, leaving the boy with his grandparents. Jingjing asks why Shuimu didn’t leave and he doesn’t answer her, but following him around she may have stumbled on the answer in his 60-year, apparently secret friendship with a man of the same age who appears to be mute and intelligible to Shuimu alone. Zhongsheng (Lu Haoquan), as the man is called, is a man without a past apparently having no memory before the age of ten. Once her car is fixed, Shuimu asks Jingjing to drive them to another village 300km away where Zhongshen thinks he may be from, obsessed with a rumour about a child who survived a massacre by “four psychos” after falling into the river.
Things that drift loom large. Shuimu muses on a giant fish head apparently washed down by the voiding of the dam the head then linking back to a strange pipeline that reminds them of a giant whale only without its mouth as if something had been uncapped or opened to the elements. Travelling through mist and fog, the trio stop their car in what seems to be the meeting of a wedding and a funeral as a procession passes by them made of men and women from another time, wearing donkey jackets and silently carrying umbrellas, seemingly filled with solemnity. Shuimu and Zhongsheng encounter younger versions of themselves, a version of their story replaying itself as the boys become men who might equally be Yiming and his friend in this strange place where past and present co-exist.
Yet Shuimu is perhaps looking for the truth of himself as much as his friend, Zhongsheng’s name apparently originally his only his mother changed it on the advice of a fengshui master worried he lacked water (水 shui) and wood (木 mu) though Shuimu liked the other name better. He also gives Zhongsheng his own birthday, making of him another self, in a sense a secret shadow self unable to speak though Shuimu is always able to interpret his thoughts perfectly. He sees a similarity in Jingjing and A-Fang, one which she also sees, a little jealous of the younger woman’s freedom lamenting the simplicity of her wedding and harshness of her life since. Both sharp tongued they’ve become prickly in the unreliability of men, each searching A-Fang like Zhongsheng’s mother calling out at night for her wandering husband only hers always comes back. Don’t become like me, she tells Jingjing, pledging to drag Yiming back and give her the proper wedding she never had.
Zhongsheng complains A-Fang haunts him like a phantom, yet everyone here is already a ghost literally haunted by historical trauma and parental failure. Shuimu and Zhongsheng search for truth and identity, but find themselves in a place they no longer recognise which in turns claims not to know them. Perhaps truth isn’t so important, Shuimu claims, as peace, deciding the entire earth is a grave, make your offerings where you will. Aided by the rolling mists, Long Miaoyuan’s ethereal photography adds to the sense of mythic grandeur in this long sad story of enduring male friendship and perpetual orphanhood carried away in the grand ever flowing river of life and death.
Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)