DEAREST (TO BE ADVISED)
123 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2
The story: In 2009 in Shenzhen, Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo) and his ex-wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) lose their three-year-old son, Pengpeng, to an abductor. Over the next few years, the search for the boy consumes Tian. Miraculously, Pengpeng is eventually found in a farming village in Anhui, but he now calls Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei) mother. Based on a true story.
Losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare.
Preoccupied with some unruly customers while helping out at an Internet cafe, Tian has no time to chase after his son when he runs off to play with his friends, merely shouting for an older child to look after him. But Pengpeng gets distracted when he sees his mother driving and tries in vain to follow along. He then gets stranded in traffic.
In the aftermath of the abduction, both blame themselves. Tian is consumed with searching for his son, putting up posters, appearing in video clips and chasing down every last dubious lead from monstrous con men.
Huang, who broke out in the black comedy Crazy Stone (2006), is riveting as a parent drowning in grief and guilt. The hope of finding his son is the one thing that keeps him afloat. As heartless as the scam artists are, they nevertheless hold out the illusion of hope. But as the years pass, even they give up harassing him.
Hao (Summer Palace, 2006) also turns in a wrenching performance.
Director Peter Chan (American Dreams In China, 2013) is a sensitive film-maker who handles the moments of frenetic action and scenes of emotional devastation equally well.
At their lowest point, Tian and Lu find solace in a support group of parents whose children have also gone missing. While the group led by Han Dezhong (Zhang Yi) offers understanding, encouragement and even moments of light-heartedness, gut-churning grief is never far below the surface and the precarious mood can turn on just a dime.
Chan takes a gamble, though, by shifting the focus of the story when Pengpeng is found.
The wife of a child abductor is a tricky role to play and the casting of Zhao (Love, 2012) is a smart choice. You need an actress who has enough star power to hold an audience when a movie pivots to her late in the proceedings and someone for whom you might be willing to reserve judgment for a while.
While her husband might be a child abductor, Li is depicted as a loving mother even if you wonder how much she really knew. When Pengpeng is first snatched back by Tian and Lu, he cries out piteously for Li as his mother in a heart-rending scene.
Zhao has been nominated for a Golden Horse Award for Best Actress for her role as an uneducated rural farmer who turns out to be a tenacious mother.
Some of the most moving scenes in the film come on after the end credits start rolling. There is footage of the people the movie is based on, including the mischievous-looking little boy and his father, who makes a touching visit to the home of the woman who raised the boy for several years under a different name.
These scenes can sometimes undercut the fictional film, but in this case, they lend the drama a note of searing authenticity and teary grace.