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Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2000

For your new millennium resolutions

When my editor at The Japan Times asked me which movie I wanted to review first for the new millennium I thought that, instead of the usual Japanese o-shogatsu fare ("Godzilla 2000" anyone?), I would try something different and, I hoped, a bit more meaningful. My choice, Hu Bingliu's family drama "Live in Peace," is not about to replace the Tora-san series as a New Year's standard, but it's a film that brings us back to the basics -- not a bad place to be when the digital calendar blinks to 2000 (or 1900 if the Y2K programmers haven't done their jobs).

The story, about a lonely, if feisty, elderly woman who feels abandoned by her overworked son and disrespected by her snappish daughter-in-law, has long been a staple of Japanese home drama, but Hu Bingliu, a "fourth generation" Chinese director returning to the screen after an eight-year absence, films it with few home-drama cliches. Yes, there are the expected scenes, including the inevitable recriminations and reconciliations, but Hu uses them, not to jerk tears, but to express our common humanity.

An old-fashioned concept of filmmaking? Probably, but the 59-year-old Hu knows what many younger filmmakers, with all their multimedia savvy and MTV shotmaking skills, have yet to learn: Movies are not about making cool images, but about making the audience feel and -- heretical as it may sound -- think. He also knows that it's still possible to do both without pandering, preaching or pummeling the audience into submission.

Though low-key, his methods are perfectly attuned to his subject matter. There are moments in "Live in Peace," as there are with any good film, when the movie-making apparatus falls away and we feel alone with the characters -- and our own feelings about what they are going through.

Even if the theme of intergenerational conflict in modern China doesn't hit home, the people who embody it on the screen are alive in ways that are intimately familiar. In its quiet way, "Live in Peace" is as universal as its admonitory English title implies (another rendering closer to the original Chinese might be "Peaceful Living").

The setting is Guangzhou -- the city on the coast of South China that has become the nouveau riche nephew of Hong Kong, complete with horrendous traffic jams, faceless high rises and 24-7 lifestyles. Among those living such lifestyles are the gentle-spirited Dong (Sun Min) and his sharp-tongued wife Fang (Wang Hong). They are hustling to make a go of their new interior decoration business and consequently have little time for Dong's widowed mother, Axi (Pan Yui).

A small birdlike woman who lives alone in the dark old flat where she raised Dong (and keeps family photos on a cabinet as a kind of domestic shrine), Axi is a demanding sort, who has fired one housemaid after another. Her dream, which she doesn't trouble to hide, is to have her son care for her in true Confucian fashion. But as much as Dong wants to do right by his mother, he is frantically trying to keep his fledgling business from going under. Meanwhile, his wife, a tall, tough-minded beauty (think Keiko Matsuzaka with a temper), wants as little to do with her mother-in-law as possible.

Into this domestic maelstrom walks Shan (Bai Xueyun), a smiling fresh-faced country girl from the North working for an elderly fishmonger who is Axi's friend. Looking for a part-time job to supplement her income, she agrees to become Axi's new maid. Friendly but not familiar, eager to please but not pushy, Shan would seem to be the paragon that Axi and Fang have been looking for, but the testy old woman is not so easily pleased. She scolds Shan for cutting the vegetables too thin and putting too much salt in the food. She even warns the girl, insultingly, against thievery, but Shan perseveres in trying to win Axi's trust -- and begins to succeed.

As we come to see, Axi may be a terror, but she is also fighting, in the only ways she knows how, to preserve a few scraps of self-respect against the encroaching indignities of old age, a few reminders of the past against the onrush of time. She knows her fate -- a nursing home bed -- but wants to stave it off as long as possible. Shan becomes a reminder that her life can still be more than a losing struggle against the darkness, that she once had other dreams. Together they visit Axi's girlhood home in the countryside, together they review her life.

Then comes a crisis. Returning home after a disastrous meal with Dong and Fang, which ended in a shouting match between mother and son, she discovers that Shan has used her kitchen to cook a meal for a boyfriend. Furious, she orders the girl out of her house -- then falls ill. But as isolated and betrayed as Axi may feel, she has made connections she cannot easily break. If our bad deeds come back to haunt us, our good ones, as Axi's story shows, can sometimes save us.

As Axi, Pan Yui is amusingly salty like hundreds of other screen grannies, but unlike most of them she can actually act. While revealing Axi's dark side -- her pettiness and crankiness, distrust and despair -- she also illuminates the affectionate, loving woman that still lives within. Her Axi may have contradictions, but is finally all of a piece.

If Bai's performance is the film's biggest plus, its air of false good cheer, which marks it indelibly as the product of a government-run studio, is its biggest minus. The old folks home that Axi visits, with its happy, healthy seniors exercising, playing games and shooting the breeze -- could have come straight from a propaganda film. And the scenes of Dong gazing at his mother with glowing looks of filial devotion could have been taken from park statuary.

Nonetheless, Hu's preference for the real, if messy, emotion over the usual audience-pleasing pose more than compensate for his occasional genuflection toward convention. Also there is a fundamental warmth and wisdom about "Live in Peace" that make an excellent way to, if not reorient your life, start your millennium. All the best to everyone for 2000 -- and beyond.

Dialogue in Mandarin with Japanese subtitles. "Live in Peace" is playing till Jan. 7 at Sanbyakunin Gekijo near Sengoku Station. The theater is holding a Chinese film festival through Feb. 13.

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