BERLIN 2000 REVIEW: Sun Zhao's "Breaking the Silence" Shines on Gong Li
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/2.24.2000) — No national cinema has mastered the art of simplistic beauty quite like mainland China, and the out-of-competition “Breaking the Silence” is yet another example. It’s overly manipulative, but still a rare look at the plight of women and the disabled in modern Beijing that, together with the recent release of Chen Kaige‘s “The Emperor and the Assassin,” should put Gong Li back into the ranks of the world’s great actresses.
It is Gong, emerging from her post-Zhang Yimou slump, who raises this story of a single mother raising a young deaf child to another level. With the rather pedestrian script, credited to Liu Heng, Shao Xiaoli and director Sun Zhou, and the incredibly schmaltzy music score by the otherwise reliable composer Zhao Jiping, “Breaking the Silence” often resembles a made-for-TV movie.
But Zhou has made a meticulous attempt at realism, casting an actual deaf boy (adorable Gao Xin from the Guangzhou School for the Deaf), relying on an on-set deaf consultant and shooting in the lower middle class Beijing neighborhoods where a single mother would likely live. By keeping his scenario accurate, and utilizing a simple but extremely effective scheme of close ups, Zhou allows Gong to cut loose.
The film opens with Sun Liying (Gong) trying to coax her son, Zheng Da, into passing an oral exam that will get him into a regular school. It’s frustrating for her because she has taught her son to speak without outside aid “for three years, one word at a time.”
She has a no-good ex-husband (Guan Yue), who drives a cab and can’t keep up with his support payments, and a dead-end job at a factory that keeps her away from Zheng Da for long hours. After Zheng Da fails the exam, then gets his hearing aid crushed in a fight with children who tease him, Liying quits the factory and focuses on stringing together enough odd jobs, including delivering newspapers, that will allow her to better supervise her son as well as pay for a new hearing aid.
In one amusing sequence, Sun Liying’s lesbian friend, Da He (Yue Xiuqeng), gets her a job as a street vendor selling books failing to tell her it’s an illegal black market venture. She finds out when the cops show up. Still, it’s important that through thick and thin and it’s mostly threadbare thin it is Da He who is always there for her. In modern China, like many other areas of the world, shunned women must band together to survive. When Sun Liying says, as they embrace in a friendly hug, “Da He, why couldn’t you have been a man?” there’s a resigned sadness behind the funny joke.
An underdeveloped portion of the script that nevertheless is brought across by Gong’s performance is Sun Liying’s paralyzing fear of men. She cleans house for one man who asks her to “sit down and shoot the shit.” Her response: “I don’t know how.” Even the kind Fang Zipin (Shi Jingming) — an art teacher at the school that rejected Zheng Da yet agrees to tutor him for free — is puzzled by her distance, even though he never makes a forward move.
Zhou, best known for his 1993 film “Heartstrings,” and who played a supporting role in “The Emperor and the Assassin,” is a solid director but not particularly distinctive visually. Perhaps we in the West have been spoiled in the last few months by films by Chen Kaige (“Emperor”), Zhang Yimou (“Not One Less,” “The Road Home“) and Zhang Yuan (“Seventeen Years“), but Zhou betrays his wide experience in television.
But he is smart in that he is well aware of who his lead actress is. Like the great stars, Gong trumps an average production. Her face can convey more emotion and information than many entire scripts, and never before has she dominated a film from start to finish. From a poignant sequence in which she nervously bolts from a class reunion to a beautiful scene where she accidentally cuts her finger, then teaches her son the color of blood, “Breaking the Silence” is her tour de force.