Death hangs over Song Fang’s first feature, Memories Look at Me, but it’s neither with grimness nor overt tragedy. Set around a young filmmaker (Song) visiting her parents (played by Song’s parents, Song Di-jin and Ye Yu-zhu) in Nanjing, the director summons a tone of intimate melancholy as she discusses death, life, marriage, and tradition with her family members, only leaving the confines of their apartment for a brief trip to visit family friends in mourning. Worry and sadness are palpable, but so is wry humor and irony as Song ponders age and mortality with a sensitive eye for emotions and a strong sense of composition.
She also has something of a heavy hand. In an excellent scene halfway through the film, Song helps her mother bind the legs of a chicken gifted to them by a neighbor. The older woman is tough from years of struggling and being a wife and mother, while Song is scared of the wild animal. A few scenes later, her brother, Song Yuan, likens his first child’s feet to a hen’s claw, tying the filmmaker’s fear of becoming a mother to her hesitancy toward a life like her mother’s. It’s a great, lingering image, but Song employs a myriad of others that pluck at a similar string, so the power of her more elegant symbols and metaphors feel diluted. By the time a conversation about her mother’s plants is overrun with the word “growth,” Song’s perceived arrested development becomes less a potent dilemma than a pestering annoyance.
If she doesn’t exactly offer a full self-excoriation of her own inner doubts about—and struggles with—the traditional role of women in China, Song shows no trepidation toward meditating on death and loss with grace and insight. The paradox at the center of Memories Look at Me is how to prepare a loved one for experiencing death and loss when one knows full well that no amount of preparation is sufficient. Song’s mother’s subtle hints and more forward lecturing is for assurance, to know that her daughter who has an unstable career and seemingly no interest in starting a family will be okay when and after she’s gone. And Song is elegant and clear-sighted in communicating the subtextual interactions between these various, often opposing fears and philosophies without sentimentalism or easy catharsis.
Obviously inspired by Jia Zhang-ke (a producer here) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (whose Flight of the Red Balloon starred Song), the film’s style is familiarly breezy and wise while navigating the almost unperceivable gap between documentary and drama. Thus, Jia’s influence is made all the more pronounced, though Song doesn’t seem interested in considering and confronting China’s rapidly evolving culture and fiscal place in the world—nor, for that matter, the country’s history—as directly as Jia does. Her contrivances are, in fact, closer to those of Hong Sang-soo, and if she’s less critical of herself than the prolific South Korean helmer, she nevertheless shows an inarguable boldness in casting herself and her parents and reveals a distinct personal style. Indeed, the film ends with her fate, personally more than professional, still on an uncertain path. But as the title infers, as well as the numerous shots of her parents simply sleeping, it’s the medium’s role as a tool of memory that’s at the heart of Song’s debut, an elegiac work on life (and filmmaking) as a humorous yet tragic attempt to stave off death.