This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.
Like many films of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival, ATA is helmed by a debut director and Chakme Rinpoche, who won Best Director at the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.
ATA takes place in desolate and dusty rural China, and weaves a tale of a blind boy, Tianyu who aspires to be something else than a blind table tennis player that his mother wants him to be, the film takes a harrowing turn when Tianyu disappears, forcing his mother to searching for him by placing herself in his position.
Make no mistake about it, this film is a film. Rinpoche seeks to challenge your idea of what cinema is and can do. There is no sag in this character driven narrative but neither are there narrative bursts either. It is a long, even trek with a woman through desolate landscapes as she searches desperately for her son. And you will be with her every step of the way. You feel her despair when she discovers her son is missing; you will experience her fear when she puts on a blindfold to learn what it is like being blind.
While the narrative cruises at a single speed, never screeching to a halt or accelerate, there are compelling scenes that strongly convey the various emotional states of the characters. One outstanding scene presents the blindfolded mother attempting to find her way out of a labyrinthine parking lot of buses. The result is terrifying, as she screams and cries, knocking into bus after bus hapless in her ability to navigate without her eyes.
The theme of helplessness is echoed in the cinematography. At first glance unremarkable, with heavy use of master shots and awkward timing of close ups; but in this apparent lack of style, it is a style in and of itself. Rinpoche’s heavy use of wide master shots allows a window to the harsh reality of rural China. Dust and sand stain every shot. Buildings are old and decrepit, and bridges look like they could collapse at any time. We are witnessing degradation at work.
These wide yawning master shots also make the characters seem insignificant in their struggles, no matter how hard they try. Tianyu’s attempts to break out of the mould seem doomed to failure; his mother’s search for him appears fruitless. In success or failure, the world goes on without them.
ATA is not an easy film to get into; it does not serve as entertainment but rather, as an experience. One of the reasons for this is because the strongest element of ATA is not visual, something that, like Tianyu’s mother, we tend to take for granted. Rather fittingly, it is the sound design that serves as the film’s signature. Brimming with a spares piano score and occasional fade ins and outs of diegetic sound, the sound works in tandem with the cinematography triumphantly, conveying the moods and emotions of the story and characters, you will know what the characters are feeling.
The main performances themselves are robust enough; the two blind boys who played Tianyu and his blind table tennis practice partner do a great job as non-actors. Wang Ning, who plays Tianyu’s mother, turns in a performance that is great for the film, realistic and understated. Just what the movie needs. However, the film’s sole supporting character is a bit of a problem. Jiao Gang, who plays the Tianyu’s table tennis coach, sticks out like a sore thumb. With his comedic mannerisms and exaggerated expressions, he does not fit into the world or even the genre of the film. Every time he shows up on screen, the film seems to tease us into comedy territory and it takes the viewer out of the harsh reality these characters live in.
Cinema can be entertaining, as it has been the primary use of the medium, we want to laugh, cry, and escape to another world, to be in awe. Or in the case of ATA, it can make us feel. Make us think. Make us experience the world through someone else’s eyes. This film is not merely entertainment, it is a journey.
This film is not for everybody, it is a challenge. But for those who this is for, you will love it madly.
Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of the documentary short film BLACK RAT has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 15th February 2016 and takes place at venues across Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Perth. For further information go to http://www.cff.org.au/.