The seismic psychological ripples of China’s one-child policy – so recently and wonderfully explored in Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son – are keenly felt in this curiously titled and boldly played family drama. At the heart of this domestic narrative is a fractious, decade-spanning relationship between a mother and daughter.
Xiang Zi’s A Dog Barking at the Moon is partly based on incidents in her own life and casually blurs elements of autobiography and fiction till these seams are indistinguishable. Huang Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) is a heavily pregnant writer who is travelling to Beijing from New York to visit her parents with her foreign-born husband. An early dinner table scene between the couple and Huang’s mother bristles with the awkwardness and humour that arises from the gulf between different cultures and generations.
It is immediately evident that these generational fissures have created a gulf in this family’s capacity to communicate. Conversations are often played out in long, static shots, where every silence becomes pregnant with meaning. What is even more apparent, is the curdled and difficult atmosphere between Huang and her mother Li Jiumei (a magnificently scabrous turn from Naren Hua). The dialogue between the two women ricochets like shrapnel and these clashes, sometimes blackly comic in their ferocity, are painful to watch.
This is a film of sustained, drip-feed revelations and we gradually learn in a series of fragmentary flashbacks of Li’s marriage and eventual discovery of her husband’s homosexuality, which she will come to troublingly attribute to mental illness. Huang, aware of her father’s sexuality, is a representative of a more tolerant and less homophobic generation and she implores her mother to get a divorce so her parents can start new lives but Li is still harbouring a deep-seated trauma from the possibly state-sanctioned abortion of a male child.
When her mother says to Huang that “I would have strangled you when you were born”, this is not merely a scalpel-sharp barb, but an incision; Huang is chastised not just for being born female but for being alive. Hua’s complex portrayal of a woman with a conflicted interior life is deeply moving. She is beholden to her generation’s expectations of marriage and heteronormative domesticity but is ultimately worn down by life’s cruel disappointments. The narrative seems to derail slightly with a sub-plot about Li’s involvement with an exploitative Buddhist group which sounds like a far-fetched and melodramatic development till you learn that Zi’s own mother was a member of a similar cult.
Huang, deep in conversation with another character, says that “some things are not easy to talk about”, and there is bravery in telling the story of a queer parent. Zi has frequently spoken of her issues with funding for A Dog Barking at the Moon on account of its LGBTQ+ content and it is still a sensitive issue in a country of rigidly traditional family values and institutional homophobia. Surprisingly, she was granted permission to shoot the film but only by sleight of syntactical subtlety by referring to the father as having a lover rather than a boyfriend in the synopsis.
It is also worth noting the cinematography by Jose Val Hal’s (Zi’s real-life spouse and the film’s producer) which is crisp and cool in its visual clarity; the majority of A Dog Barking at the Moon is shot in interior locations which is fitting for a narrative so focused on insular lives and secrets behind closed doors. The acute sense of realism and political reality is often offset by a series of playful stylistic flourishes that sometimes risk distracting from the main story but nonetheless remain startling in their surrealism. Past and present begin to sidle and crash against each, often within the same frame and in other moments, memories are re-enacted as a form of Brechtian theatre, reminding us of the falsity and performative nature of this family’s existence.
Zi has said that the title is inspired by a 1926 work by Spanish artist Joan Miró. The painting depicts a dog on a barren landscape barking at the moon while a ladder, drawn in exaggerated lines, extend upwards towards the sky in a futile attempt at connection. Absurdist and painful, it acts as a crystalline and abstract distillation of the themes of this assured and emotionally devastating debut.