Original Title: 血蝉
Release Date: October 01, 2007
Director: Peng Tao
Novel: Bai Tianguang
Screenplay: Peng Tao
Cast: Zhao Huihui, Hong Qifa, Han Dequn, Zeng Xiaorong, Zhang Lei, Xu Zelin, Gao Yuanbing
Few films over the past twenty years have captured the spirit and essence of the kind of filmmaking the Dardenne brothers are known for better than Little Moth (Xue chan). This devastating second feature by Peng Tao (b. 1974) goes beyond the superficial—there is no lack of contemporary movies that feature raw, unadorned, handheld camerawork, best exemplified by over-the-shoulder shots; concern for the downtrodden and the marginalized; non-pro actors, etc.—to examine the moral and ethical dilemmas prevalent in the underbelly of a society without ever coming across like a sociological treatise.
Like the Dardennes‘ films, it employs a radically minimalist narrative that unfolds through action on a moment-to-moment basis, not exposition or inertia, two of the primary formal devices of commercial and non-commercial filmmaking, respectively, which imbues the work with a breathtaking sense of urgency and tension. It similarly unfolds in nondescript locations and uses sound as a dramatic device.
The film starts, appropriately, in medias res, with a man and a woman traveling on a rural highway in the back of a tractor cart. They turn out to be a poor couple, Luo (Hong) and Guihua (Han), on their way to visit the former’s uncle, a disreputable man who has brokered a deal for them to purchase an 11-year-old handicapped girl named Xiao E’zi (Zhao). Her father is an alcoholic who wants nothing to do with her after her mother’s death, including paying for any medical expenses. We soon discover, however, that the couple are acting out of mercenary, rather than altruistic, reasons. They plan on utilizing Xiao as a beggar to make money. A visit to the local doctor confirms that she is suffering from a treatable but degenerative blood disease that has paralyzed her legs.
There is no doubt that Peng takes us to a tough and cruel world driven by material interest, where people too have become commodities; to be exploited, used or forgotten. The film itself could have come across as exploitative if it weren’t so immersed in these troubled outsiders and their everyday lives. It restricts itself to the incidents that occur within their immediate environment. And it is not completely devoid of compassion.
Guihua gradually becomes maternally protective of Xiao, and clandestinely tries to cure her condition with free herbal remedies her husband had heartlessly rejected. In the city, a society woman takes pity on the girl, even if it turns out to be for selfish reasons. But the person who helps Xiao the most ends up being someone just like her, a slightly older handicapped boy whose boss also deals in organ smuggling.
Similar to the topic of illegal immigrants in La Promesse (1996) or poverty in Rosetta (1999), Little Moth manages to touch on relevant issues such as child exploitation and human organ trafficking without becoming about them. Like those Dardennes’ films, it is all the more powerful for its complete lack of didacticism. It is also, surprisingly, anchored by a quietly determined individual at its center, even if she is seldom glimpsed and is as stationary as the characters of Jérémie Renier and Émilie Dequenne were excitingly mobile in those respective movies.
There is never a moment in which Zhao, a real-life orphan whom Peng found in one of the villages he shot in, begs for our sympathy. She always projects a sense that she has seen all of this before. Peng, to his credit, never cuts to her even when her fate is discussed in her presence by callous individuals. Her steely resolve makes you want to believe that, despite being abandoned by the world, she will find a way.