Handled With Care: 'Dearest' Portrays Child Trafficking in China Without Emotional Manipulation

Peter Ho-Sun Chan's film has a larger agenda than conventional movies dealing with vanished children.

Dearest Directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan; written by Ji Zhang; with Huang Bo, Lei Hao, Zhao Wei, Tong Dawei

Hong Kong-born director Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s “Dearest” is one of those rare pictures that make us identify with each of the characters in turn, even when they clash with one another, and the identification we feel for each colors our reaction to the others. The result is a lovely, impressive and moving work.

Based on several true stories, “Dearest” explores the problem of child trafficking in China. The plot, which opens in 2009, is set in the southern city of Shenzhen. Tian (Huang Bo) and Lu (Lei Hao) are divorced. Since Lu has remarried, Tian – who runs a small store that also provides Internet services – has custody of their young son, Pengpeng. One day, while running after his mother’s car (she has just dropped him off), Pengpeng is abducted. He is taken swiftly before our eyes, at the far end of the frame; we see it happen, but somehow also do not, and the effect is jolting.

The plot of “Dearest” follows Lu and Tian’s years-long search for their son, their contacts with the police, and their experiences in a support group for parents of kidnapped children. However, this is not a conventional melodrama about distressed parents looking for a vanished child. There is no mystery and solution here. Chan’s agenda is bigger than that, and his movie takes off in other directions, which I will not outline here in order not to spoil the riveting experience the movie offers. The plot of “Dearest” twists and turns skillfully, presenting us with a human, social and cultural mosaic that is complex and poignant.

I will say only that the story involves other parents of kidnapped children; a widow from the countryside (Zhao Wei) with two children of her own; a young lawyer (Tong Dawei) whose mother is mentally ill and requires care; and some other characters. Chan and screenwriter Ji Zhang move between them and their interlocking plot lines with impressive skill. “Dearest” owes its power to the almost entirely direct, even dry factuality of the storytelling and characterization.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of “Dearest” is that it succeeds both in telling us the main characters’ stories and in painting a portrait of China’s treatment of child trafficking, and of childbearing and parenthood more broadly. The movie is a chain of scenes, most of them excellent, that lead it in different directions at the same time. And so we have, for example, a father of a child who disappeared many years ago, who applies for a permit to have another baby; to get that, however, he must declare his missing son dead, which he refuses to do. Other scenes show what happens inside support groups for parents of abducted children. When one woman collapses, the others yell at her, “cheer up! cheer up!” while clapping enthusiastically.

These are forceful scenes that do not detract from the power of the individual storylines. There are tears in “Dearest,” whose protagonists are repeatedly seen weeping. But it is not a sentimental picture, certainly not of the kind that borders on emotional manipulation. The story it tells is too complicated to succumb to facile sentiment, and the movie gains power precisely from not saying things too explicitly.

Another virtue of “Dearest” is the way it puts together characters and landscapes. This is not a journey through China, but we do get to see both the city and the countryside – settings within which Chan situates his characters with a careful balance, giving them the right kind of expressive quality.

Broader terrains

I do have two reservations about the movie. First, it makes excessive use of music, which sometimes amplifies the dramatic peaks needlessly. Second, with the final credits, Chan shows us the real-life people on whose stories the movie is based, as well as the cast watching videos of these people. Although it is always intriguing to see people whose stories we have followed, I am not sure this device is necessary: It makes “Dearest” seem like just another movie about real-life events, when in fact it aspires to – and achieves – much more than that.

Chan uses his plot to point to the child-trafficking problem in China, but also departs from this issue to broader human, ideological and political terrains that give the result its depth and validity. Accompanying the final credits was a song whose words I could not understand, but the melody was oddly reminiscent of Israeli folk music.

The entire cast does good work, giving low-key performances that suit the overall picture. To be honest, I had not even heard of “Dearest” when it opened in Israel; the experience it offered me was impressive and even surprising in its force and wisdom.