Wri/Dir.: Lisa Zi Xiang; Cast: Goowa Siqin, Renhua Na, Huang Xiaoya, Thomas Fiquet, Wu Renyuan; China/Spain 2019, 107 min.
A Dog Barking at the Moon traces a family’s life over a period of over thirty years centred around Huang Xuioyou, a writer who is emotionally abused, albeit in very different ways, by her sexually ambivalent parents. Partly based on the director’s own life experience, this is a stylish debut for Lisa Zi Xiang, and takes place in a magical setting, shot by her husband DoP Jose Val Bal. Taking its title from a Joan Miro painting, and chronicling the different stages of Xiaoyou’s (Siqin) up-bringing, its non-linear narrative often leaves us bewildered but this also makes for some welcome surprises and twists.
Xiaoyou was a model student at secondary school, she also excelled as a violinist, but was suddenly removed from her class for purportedly having written love letters to her teacher Zhen, who had allowed her to read western literature in class, unlike the other students who were banned from exploring this avenue of pleasure.
Xiaoyou’s mother Jiumei (Na) is not a likeable character – often angry with her daughter she accuses her of being ‘oversexed’ like her father. The parents decide to divorce when it emerges that her lecturer father is homosexual, and has been indulging in affairs with his students. In an embarrassing scene Xiaoyou is forced to witness his sexual shenanigans, although plans for the divorce are later shelved. In another cringeworthy moment Jiumei invites one of her husband’s lovers and his wife and daughter for dinner.
Xiaoyou later marries an American, Benjamin (Fiquet), but cannot escape the emotional lure of her parent’s abusive treatment, and soon returns to China to give birth to her first baby-girl. The relationship with her mother deteriorates even further when the second child arrives, Juimei telling her daughter “if I had known everything, I would have strangled you at birth”. It seems, like many abused characters, Xiaoyou is unable to break free and scenes illustrating the casual humiliation at the hands of her parents are littered throughout the feature: Xiaoyou endures more embarrassment when she sits at a restaurant table with one of her father’s young lovers who tells her he is happy to share her father with her mother, asking her to accept her father loves her – which Xiaoyu simply refuses to condone. Finally, her mother becomes a member of a Buddhist cult.
What emerges here is a stultifying society where stiff upper lips are the order of the day and any attempt at emotional honesty is punished. Siqin is superb as the “orphaned child”, while Na’s Jiumei is very much the product of sexual repression. Zi Xiang delivers a small masterpiece, boding well for her future in filmmaking AS
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