Ultimate homecoming and Cold War cultural heritage…
The Return is the directorial debut of an actress Qin Hailu, who previously starred in several iconic films such as Fruit Chan’s Durian, Durian (1999), Zhang Meng’s The Piano in a Factory (2011), John Woo’s The Crossing 1 & 2 (2014, 2015), all the way up to Zhang Ming’s Pluto Moment that premiered at 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Having worked with some of the best filmmakers in China and Hong Kong and drawing on her own experience as theatre and film performer, she directed The Return – bold, honest and intense debut that slightly bends under its emotional weight.
Qin Hailu takes on heavily underrepresented characters as the film’s centre, following the story of old Chinese civil war veterans living in Taiwan, still longing for the family and hometown they left in the Mainland more than 70 years ago. The Return revolves around terminally-ill veteran, Jiang Sheng, who is determined to die in his native land in Yingkou, Liaoning province in the far Northeast of China. He had been displaced for his whole life. Unable to come back home to his wife, he endlessly searches for chilli sauce similar to the one she was making. Jiang Sheng’s life after arriving in Taiwan, centred around one of many Red Envelope Clubs (红包场, hongbaochang) in Taipei’s central district Ximending, fictional Night Scent (夜来香, yelaixiang, the name coming from famous 1940s song originally performed by Li Xianglan; also refers to Tokin jasmine). From 1950s onwards these night clubs were popular among Mainland soldiers, who did not start a family in Taiwan but remained single, sometimes by choice, sometimes due to poverty, lack of education that would allow them to find well-paid work and move on with their lives. The name derives from red envelopes with money the veterans gave to escorts, who worked at the club. They sing popular 1930s Shanghai tunes the customers were familiar with, supporting their nostalgic longing for home. Once full of people dancing and singing, the iconic places were the signs of their times and now become desolate as old customers die one by one. The context is not fully introduced in the narrative, only one character – a young club promoter from the Mainland – tries to attract Chinese tourists to the Red Envelope Club calling it an intangible cultural heritage site. Now the owner and staff working there serve as mourners, who accompany veterans in their last moments of life and often fulfil the last will by transporting their ashes back to China. Jiang Sheng with the help of a few friends – favourite escort, old fellow soldier, Night Scent personnel – prepares for the final return.
Qin Hailu took on a quite heavy and complex topic in The Return and it shows in the script co-written by Qin herself and Yang Xiaoli. The introduction of the characters is swift and smart, small gestures and allusions in the dialogue naturally disclose their background. Jiang Sheng chooses old fashioned hat over flashy sunglasses while shopping at the night market, while his impetuous friend still argues with escorts at the club. Nevertheless, the intricacies that catch viewers’ attention at the beginning are not developed and unfortunately meltdown as the film continues, leaving character’s motivation unclear and choices not enough unjustified thus quite difficult to relate to. The chilli sauce motif dominates over the script, it symbolizes Jiang Sheng’s longing for China and highlights Taiwan’s insufficiency, because some ingredients that are vital for preparing the sauce are not available on the island but common in Hunan – main character’s wife native province famous for spicy food, but most importantly for being one of the essential centres of Chinese Communist Party development and home of Mao Zedong. The Return smartly conveys the message of homecoming and uniting with one’s roots, though it might be overemotional thus prone to oversimplifications.
In the story about 70 years of regrets, longing and slow decay, the cinematic space presented in the film is surprisingly tidy and peaceful. The club, love hotel, restaurants, Jiang Sheng’s house are run down but very clean and sterile. Civil war veterans’ villages, juancun (眷村), full of makeshift houses used to pervade over Taiwan’s cityscape but now they are mostly torn down to make way for redevelopment. Only some of them have turned into art districts or museums such Xixi South Village that is featured in The Return. Located close to Taipei 101, now it is a fashionable photoshoot hotspot and does not reflect the true landscape of juancun anymore where war veterans’ houses are stuffy, dark, run-down, often dirty and dusty, filled with memorabilia and old books all the way up to the ceiling. Jiang Sheng’s tidy and cosy living space cannot compare to a coffin he refers to, several antiques he tries to sell at the market look quite purposeful. It is difficult to believe that all the negative emotions – anger, sorrow and remorse stored up over seven decades – can exist in such space as slow death cannot be so clinically tidy.
Acting performances are the strongest asset of the film. Qin Hailu’s choice of actors was very well-aimed. 96-year-old Chang Feng, who plays the main character, started his career on stage while still serving in the army during the II World War. After the Chinese nationalist troops’ retreat to Taiwan, he continued to act in television as well as film productions of various genres, among them iconic dramas like The Beauty of Beauties (1965, dir. Li Han-Hsiang), The Coldest Winter in Peking (1980, dir. Pai Ching-jui), war films such as Eight Hundred Heroes (1975, dir. Ting Shan-Hsi), some titles being closely connected to the nationalist government agenda. Chang Feng withdrew from acting in 1989 and The Return is only his second come back to the screen since then, making his performance all the more powerful and telling. Chang Feng’s role earned him Best Actor Award at 22nd Shanghai International Film Festival, summing up 70 years of his career as well as huge changes Chinese film industry went through over the decades. Taiwanese actress Grace Ko, playing Jiang Sheng’s female companion, also delivered very complex performance as a woman torn between the contradictory feelings of attachment and distance. Lei Gesheng’s role as a fellow veteran is unfortunately monotonous and a bit irritating, maybe because his character was purposefully left out undeveloped in the script.
The Return is a model debut film with its strengths as well as few flaws: after a great introduction to the narrative, the pace of story development becomes uneven, occasional slowdowns caused by monotonous dialogues or music that does not really fit the moment on screen. Qin Hailu has focused on a very complex and underexplored topic, the film had an immense potential to present gripping, truly touching story of displacement and exile. The script and the staging did not sustain the emotional load hidden within the narrative and The Return came out a bit too clean-cut and unambiguous.