[Content warning for the film: homophobia, emotional and physical violence]
In Lisa Zi Xiang’s semi-autobiographical film A Dog Barking at the Moon, much has changed in the life of protagonist Huang Xiaoyou (Gaowa Siqin) when she returns from New York to China to give birth to her first child. Xiaoyu is accompanied by her foreign husband Benjamin (Thomas Fiquet), but the comical confusion resulting from the cross-cultural get-together is only brief. Instead, the film explores familial trauma and the struggles of Xiaoyu’s dysfunctional family. During her return, she discovers that her family is as toxic as before – only even more chaotic now. Her father Huang Tao (Wu Renyuan) is having another affair with one of his male students, and her mother Jiumei (Renhua Na) has joined a Buddhist cult. Hearing the synopsis was enough to tempt me to see it at the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF).
The film explores a series of occasionally crossing timelines in the story of the Huang family – Xiaoyu’s childhood, Jiumei’s youth, and the present. While the last storyline initially appears entertaining, the themes explored in the film are heavy and complex. After arriving at her parents’ house, Xiaoyu first appears passive. As the story unfolds, the viewer learns of her difficult relationship with her emotionally abusive mother, who finds in her daughter the scapegoat for her husband’s infidelity. Xiaoyu’s struggles with her mother are shown in two different timelines, thus explaining her crippling familial trauma. However, as she learns about Jiumei’s involvement in a cult, Xiaoyu is pulled from her passive bubble as she undertakes the mission of saving her mother.
The film manages to gradually build up tension and does not shy away from awkward silences. In a past timeline Jiumei, whilst being perfectly aware of their affair, invites her husband’s lover and his family over for dinner, making the viewers squirm in their seats. Much of the film’s appeal also lies in its ability to surprise the audience. We get a shot of Jiumei burning papers in their living room and shouting at her daughter, and the open fire in the domestic setting is symbolic of the family’s dynamic.
A Teddy Award winner in 2019, A Dog Barking at the Moon is both emotionally and creatively well-crafted and expertly brings together the loose ends from each of the timelines. In cooperation with her cinematographer husband Jose Val Bal, Lisa Zi Xiang creates borderline abstract scenes consisting of chairs on a stage, where she explores the characters’ memories through dialogue. The atmosphere on the dark stage resembles the Joan Miró’s painting that the film derives its name from, connecting the two. The thought-provoking film is concluded with an aesthetically pleasing scene where the timelines overlap as Jiumei dances with the key people in her life, both past and present – her daughter, husband, and her past love.
[Kristiina Kangasluoma – she/her – @overthefrogwall]