An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are.
At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point.
Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl.
These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself.
Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.
Lighting Up the Stars streams for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.
International trailer (Simplified Chinese, English subitles)