In this quiet meditation on mortality, the healing powers and limitations of family intimacy, and the inexorable passage of time, writer-director and star Song Fang (the tranquil filmmaker/nanny from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon) plays a fictionalized version of herself. Returning home from Beijing to Nanjing, Song settles into the rhythms of her fit but aging parents’ (played by Fang’s real parents) lives, sharing domestic chores and talking about the past, various relatives, and other people they know, all while fending off well-meaning attempts to diagnose or “fix” her single status.
Shot almost entirely inside the parents’ apartment, the muted sounds of the city outside providing the only sounds that aren’t made by the family itself, Memories Look at Me is an unusually personal portrait of family life in China. A sense of sorrow suffuses the film, in part because Mrs. Song’s stories about the past always refer to hard times (persistent hunger, inescapable cold, an “awful” hospital), the memories of which make her cry. No wonder her favorite refrains seem to be “He had a hard life” and “What choice did I have?”
Reminders of death keep intruding too, in the stories we hear about family friends losing people they loved and in a recurring shot of the parents asleep, side by side and utterly motionless except for a strong pulse in Mrs. Song’s neck. In the closest thing the film has to a climax, Fang confides a wistful desire to rewind her life to age 17 and start over again from there. “Sort yourself out in the present,” her mother urges. “You’ve made your choices.” A more conventional movie would make that moment into a cathartic turning point—and flash back, at some point, to the wrong turn Fang made at 17. But this one leaves Fang mired in regret, longing for the past and headed for a future that seems dubious at best.
The New York Film Festival runs from September 28 to October 14.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.