BFI FLARE REVIEW: ‘A Dog Barking at the Moon’ (2019) is a Carefully Crafted Portrait of a Family Held Together by a Thread

Rating: 4 out of 4.

“Xiang Zi’s directorial and screenwriting debut switches between moods and decades with grace and ease.”

 Pregnant Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) lives in the US with her husband Benjamin (Thomas Fiquet), but the couple are visiting Beijing to stay with Xiaoyu’s parents, mother Jiumei (Naren Hua) and father Tao (Wu Renyuan). The splinters in the family unit are immediately apparent – the origin of these cracks are rooted in Xiaoyu’s childhood, when her mother walked in on her father with a male lover. Jiumei is convinced that Tao’s same-sex attraction is a disease that can be “cured” and refuses to agree to a divorce, so the pair remain in a toxic and loveless marriage.

Director Xiang Zi was in her second trimester of pregnancy herself while shooting the movie, but that’s not where the similarities with Xiaoyu end – the film is based heavily on the melodrama of Xiang’s own family. At one point, Xiaoyu says to her father, “If marriage is a torture, why not put it to an end?”, and this question is perhaps the backbone of the film.

Stubborn and dramatic, Jiumei frequently clashes with her daughter and eventually finds solace in a Buddhist cult, which serves as another source of conflict between the two. While the film may appear to be about marriage on the surface, it soon becomes apparent that it is much more interested in the relationship between mother and daughter.

The film’s opening scene is a closeup of a young Jiumei’s face as she gives birth. The next scene jumps back in time; Jiumei is seen with her former roommate and friend Yuanyuan (Ming Xing). They’re talking and music is playing as Jiumei gets ready for her first date with Tao.

When the central plot of the film begins, we jump forward in time again, past Xiaoyu’s birth and to the present day. Jiumei and Tao are silent as they meet Xioayu and Benjamin at the airport. The family remains silent in the car. The silence is only broken by the car radio, but there is no music, only a bleak news report about air pollution. 

Throughout the film, the camera remains at a distance from the Huang family. The viewer is often left outside the room, looking in. Combined with an almost non-existent score, we are left feeling intrusive (the score returns, noticeably, in the flashbacks of Jiumei and Yuanyuan). At one point, we watch from the shore as a young Xiaoyu (Zhang Xinyue) comes out of the water after a swim and sits with her back to the camera as she cries. Being in such close proximity to her pain is uncomfortable but hypnotic. 

These long, steady shots looking directly at the characters feel theatrical and befitting of the family melodrama. At several points, flashbacks descend into a minimalist stage play. In one of Xiaoyu’s memories from childhood, she sits with her arguing parents on a dark stage as her father mimes driving a car. The farcical nature of the scene would almost make it comical, if the memory wasn’t so obviously painful to Xiaoyu. Later, Xiaoyu says, “Sometimes I wish everything I lived here was a theatre play. And that at the end of it, I just did my part as an actress.”

The action sometimes becomes stilted and dreamlike – when the Huangs have guests over for dinner, we only see Jiumei’s face. There are five other people at the table, but we only see closeups of the food and wine as a backdrop of the conversation. Jiumei is not fully present in the moment, and neither is the audience. Meanwhile, moments of tenderness are rare and therefore made more powerful, such as Benjamin gently blowdrying Xiaoyu’s hair after the couple get drenched in a sudden downpour of rain.

A Dog Barking at the Moon is a domestic melodrama filled with understated moments of emotion. Naren provides the film’s standout performance, with her purposeful obtuseness ranging from mundane to hysterical, while Nan is a masterclass in emotional subtlety. This carefully crafted portrait of a family held together by a thread is intimately and masterfully handled, and the film is a mature study in self-reflection – Xiang Zi is a director to watch out for.

Dir: Xiang Zi

Prod: Xiang Zi, José Val Bal

Cast: Nan Ji, Naren Hua, Wu Renyuan, Thomas Fiquet, Ming Xing, Zhang Xinyue

Header image courtesy of Acorn Studio