HomeAll FilmsThemesGenresDirectorsAboutContactTeam中文版

Mama

妈妈 (Mama)

199190 mins|Director Zhang Yuan 张元


intro

Mama was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, independent fictional feature films to be made in China, and the first of what director Zhang Yuan calls his 'documentary feature-films'. It uses techniques usually associated with documentary realism to represent the hardships of marginalised and disabled people. Together with the films of Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帅 and the early films of Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯...

Mama was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, independent fictional feature films to be made in China, and the first of what director Zhang Yuan calls his 'documentary feature-films'. It uses techniques usually associated with documentary realism to represent the hardships of marginalised and disabled people. Together with the films of Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帅 and the early films of Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯, Mama, which was Zhang Yuan's debut film as a director, marked the rise of China's so-called 'Sixth Generation' of filmmakers. Shot mostly in the surroundings of Zhang Yuan’s own sparsely decorated Beijing flat, Mama is a remarkably sensuous tribute to the relationship between Liang Dan 梁丹, a librarian and effectively a single parent, and her apparently severely autistic and epileptic adolescent son, Dongdong 冬冬. It draws our attention to the lack of social support available to the disabled and socially marginalized, and the resulting strain on family relationships. Dongdong's absent father, working far away from home, barely contributes to family life or to key decisions affecting his child. Viewers, both Chinese and non-Chinese, are likely to be challenged by the physical, indeed quasi-erotic, intimacy of mother and son as she coos gently and massages him, while wrapping her child in long white bandages to reduce the severity of his epileptic fits – or else contemplates abandoning or even killing him. Deeply disturbing at many levels, and for many reasons, this film took two years to overcome a temporary ban.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing), Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

Show more

screening notes

context

Zhang Yuan (b. Nanjing, 1963) is considered by many to be the helmsman of the Chinese documentary movement, and a master of docu-drama in fiction films. Besides Mama, his first venture into docu-drama, Zhang Yuan is also well known both in China and the West for his 1990s documentary films Beijing Bastards (Beijing zazhong, 1993), about sex, drugs and rock 'n roll among alienated youths in early 1...

Zhang Yuan (b. Nanjing, 1963) is considered by many to be the helmsman of the Chinese documentary movement, and a master of docu-drama in fiction films. Besides Mama, his first venture into docu-drama, Zhang Yuan is also well known both in China and the West for his 1990s documentary films Beijing Bastards (Beijing zazhong, 1993), about sex, drugs and rock 'n roll among alienated youths in early 1990s Beijing, The Square (Guangchang, 1994), about Tian’anmen square, and Sons (Erzi, 1996) about dysfunctional families and alcoholism. With East Palace West Palace (1997) [see elsewhere in YiMovi], based on a novel by Wang Xiaobo, and Seventeen Years (Guonian huijia, 1999), a family drama, he turned increasingly to fiction, although his most recent films have continued to combine documentary and narrative fictional forms and filming styles in highly inventive and original ways.

Being disabled in China In the opening titles, it is stated that at the time Mama was filmed, there were 10 million disabled people in China, of whom only a few thousand were receiving adequate care. According to official statistics, in the early 1990s over 40 percent of people with disabilities were illiterate and 15 million lived on less than one dollar a day in the countryside. About 28 percent of children with disabilities who should have been receiving compulsory basic education were not in school. While the situation has improved considerably during the intervening years, the sheer numbers of people involved and the complex needs of many disabled people mean that the education, social assistance and care of the disabled remain major problems in China today.

When Liang Dan pleads with her largely absent husband to help share the burden of Dongdong's care, he merely encourages Liang Dan to place Dongdong in an institution, have another child and "start again". During the years of the One-Child Policy, the disability of one’s only child allowed the couple to have a second legal child.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing), Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

Show more

synopsis & relevance

Dongdong’s intellectual development has been severely affected by a childhood accident that has arrested or reversed his language development and ability to learn, and has also left him prone to severe epileptic seizures. He doesn’t speak and responds very little to stimuli beyond the occasional physical pleasure he takes from eating, being massaged or relieving himself in the wrong place at the w...

Dongdong’s intellectual development has been severely affected by a childhood accident that has arrested or reversed his language development and ability to learn, and has also left him prone to severe epileptic seizures. He doesn’t speak and responds very little to stimuli beyond the occasional physical pleasure he takes from eating, being massaged or relieving himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film lacks any conventional plot except what unravels as Liang Dan persistently rejects the option of giving up on her disabled child and allowing him to be taken into state institutional care. We are made to accompany Liang Dan through a gruelling series of doors being shut in her face as Dongdong is excluded from school for disrupting classroom teaching, Liang Dan is asked to leave the library where she works, and mother and child end up alone with each other. Dongdong’s father's 'solution' to the problem is to encourage Liang Dan to have another child and start again, as during the years of the One-Child Policy, couples whose only child was disabled were allowed to have a second legal child. No one is particularly unkind, but the absence of help, family support or any real sense of being entitled to some assistance from the state gradually builds up a sense of silent desperation. A trip to the family home in the countryside, where we see Dongdong briefly animated and stimulated by the water, the wind and the animals around, provides the only relief. The film ends mysteriously on their way home when Dongdong disappears at the railway station, and Liang Dan, running desperately beside the screaming trains, finds him lying apparently dead beside the tracks. Has he been hit by a train during an epileptic fugue, or died of convulsions? We (the audience) cannot tell; all we know is that, far from feeling any sense of relief, Liang Dan's sense of grief and hopelessness is overwhelming. It is as if the best part of her had died with Dongdong, unseen and uncared for both in her desperation and in her grief.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing), Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

Show more

cinematography

In the haunting opening scene of Mama, we find Liang Dan and Dongdong filmed in close-up together in shadow at bedtime. Dongdong’s nakedness is caressed by his mother's soft rhythmic voice as she lulls him to sleep, and by the camera which follows her gently wrapping his limbs and body in bright white linen bandages to contain him and restrain him from convulsing. The safety and security of their ...

In the haunting opening scene of Mama, we find Liang Dan and Dongdong filmed in close-up together in shadow at bedtime. Dongdong’s nakedness is caressed by his mother's soft rhythmic voice as she lulls him to sleep, and by the camera which follows her gently wrapping his limbs and body in bright white linen bandages to contain him and restrain him from convulsing. The safety and security of their inner lives, her maternal dedication and the quiet watchfulness of the ever-silent child, contrasts bleakly with Liang Dan's struggle to find appropriate schooling for Dongdong, and with the bureaucratic, impersonal world of her workplace where the mother-child relationship just does not fit. The boy sits for hours in the library where Liang Dan works, is unresponsive at school, and his prospects do not improve with time. We feel each moment of the achingly long days, which are shot in black and white to draw out the tedium. But the film itself defies boredom. We feel, for example, the tension of the neglected mother’s unfulfilled sexuality, and how it finds an outlet in maternal devotion, frustration and ultimately suppressed violence. The story of Liang and Dongdong's love and their failure to find a way to survive together is intercut with full-colour documentary footage in which actual parents of severely autistic or educationally challenged children speaking directly to camera describe their own experiences and emotions in similar situations, demanding that we pay attention to the real-world dimensions of the human story even as we are drawn into the fictional world of the film.

Patrizia LIBERATI (Istituto di Cultura Italiana, Beijing), Dr. Vivienne LO (University College London) and Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

Show more

points for discussion

The condition of disabled people in China: in what ways have the disabled been marginalised as if they were lesser beings, or somehow less than human? The role of documentary film in the depiction of Chinese social reality Perceptions of disability in China: as magical, the outcome of an ill-fated destiny, or as socially useless and simply a burden on the able-bodied? The inclusion or exclusion of...

  • The condition of disabled people in China: in what ways have the disabled been marginalised as if they were lesser beings, or somehow less than human?

  • The role of documentary film in the depiction of Chinese social reality

  • Perceptions of disability in China: as magical, the outcome of an ill-fated destiny, or as socially useless and simply a burden on the able-bodied?

  • The inclusion or exclusion of educationally challenged children from mainstream education

  • The maternal/family relationship and responsibilities

  • The State and citizenship: what are the state’s responsibilities to all its citizens?

  • How does Zhang Yuan’s film figure in the history of Chinese drama-documentaries?

  • How does the film depict female desperation?

Show more

availability


external links


teaching and learning

Jason McGrath, ‘The Urban Generation: Underground and Independent Films from the PRC’, in Lim & Wards, eds., The Chinese Cinema Book (2011), Ch. 18, pp. 167-168
(Jia Xu), ‘A Brief History of Chinese Independent Film [in conversation] with Tony Rayns’, http://festivalists.com/post/46673581077/tonyrayns [See Pp. 4-5 of this online transcript of an interview with veteran film festival programmer and ...

Jason McGrath, ‘The Urban Generation: Underground and Independent Films from the PRC’, in Lim & Wards, eds., The Chinese Cinema Book (2011), Ch. 18, pp. 167-168

  • (Jia Xu), ‘A Brief History of Chinese Independent Film [in conversation] with Tony Rayns’, http://festivalists.com/post/46673581077/tonyrayns [See Pp. 4-5 of this online transcript of an interview with veteran film festival programmer and Chinese film historian Tony Rayns, in which Rayns sheds an unusual and highly critical light on Zhang Yuan’s role in the making of Mama, in effect accusing him of having ‘stolen’ the film from director Wang Xiaoshuai during its development]
Show more

share