Home Away, Directed by Oliver Yan
Home Away begins with a controversial and challenging topic; in a static shot behind the window of a restaurant, an old man proposes a fake marriage to an old woman. The woman is afraid of the legal consequences of such a fake marriage and rejects the offer but the old man puts an envelope full of money on the table, to persuade her to say yes. The camera doesn’t show close-ups of their faces or even a close shot of the money, instead, the same frame records the feelings of temptation, tension, confusion and even doubt; all the things that the filmmaker brilliantly portrays in the film.
The approach to moving the story forward is unique in the film as the filmmaker presents the whole topic of the film and then tries to move around the idea and show its dimensions from different angles. We see a young couple, apparently looking for a house to rent. The house is small and shabby and the stairs seem crooked. The young man and his wife seem to be cold toward one another, and it even seems that the woman likes the realtor who’s showing the house. The filmmaker plants bits and pieces of his narrative along the way so that he can get back to them and complete them later. The young man is the son of the old man, named Zhou, seen early in the film. Then we follow the life of the old woman. Her blurry vision forces her to go to the doctor. She lives alone and has a young maid who also does the chores for the house. Everything in this setting exists to move the central idea of the film forward. The idea that connects these people like an engine.
The characters constantly affect each other’s decisions and relationships. When Zhou’s son enters the scene, it causes his fake proposal to the old woman to fall apart, the existence of a supporting character such as the realtor makes us aware of the cold distance between the young couple. The film succeeds in pinpointing the mark between the progression of narrative and its static nature at times. There is a unique puzzle-like connection between the information we get through the conversations and the scenes that simply paint a picture of the characters’ everyday life. The scenes like the one where the maid is cleaning the old woman’s house, or Zhou looking at a photo album; the scenes that are cleverly mixed with the tense scenes in the film to give us a complete picture of the characters’ lives.
The motif of ‘sleeping’ works great with the story of the old woman. We mostly see her sleeping in her house. One time, she suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night as she has had a dream about her deceased husband walking in the house. We can see the dream in relation to the fact that her vision is blurry. She tells her doctor that she feels weak and we see this in her everyday life. It is as if she’s dreaming while awake. The film cleverly connects ‘dreaming’ and ‘seeing’. Things are blurry in her life.
The visual style of the film varries at times. The outstanding Haiku-like frames (that the film begins with), the scenes that involve the camera/characters moving around (like seeing the shabby house, the car scenes, or walking around the market with Zhou), and the crowded scenes like the one in the park. Without giving the audience mixed feelings, the film refrains from boring the audience while trying to keep its visual style at the same time. The filmmaker has shown that he has the skills to make an extremely minimalistic film and that he prefers being a great storyteller rather than being a formalist.
After one third of the film has passed, the film enters a new phase. After the old woman rejects Zhou’s request and gives back his money and tells him that she won’t accept being in a fake marriage, Zhou has dates with women his age to find the right person. Here, the intricate comical elements of the film are shown. In one of these romantic dates, a woman asks him: ‘Do you snore when you sleep?” the filmmaker knows how to make his film humorous while never losing sight of its central ideas. The film returns to its central themes time and time again, like the concepts of ‘home’, ‘rent’ and ‘loneliness’ and keeps the audience preoccupied with these concepts (the radio host talks about the increase in rent fee in Berlin and says that many people are forced to leave the cities because of the high costs of living). These concepts are often incorporated into the film rather indirectly but they affect the film’s topic: The whole film is the story of people who are chained to places; places that determine their identity and the direction of their lives.
Mr. Zhou’s son practically lives in his car! We always see him behind the wheel. He drives around the city for endless hours, without resting. When he actually goes home to rest, he has to leave to take the sick girl to the hospital. The identity of the old woman also lies in her house. It’s a big, quiet house where she only uses one of the chairs and the rest is unused. The old woman can’t ‘see’ the possibility of happiness. The light bulb of her life that keeps blinking in her room (and we see the maid try to fix it) finally turns off. We constantly see people from behind the curtains, windows, and furniture. It’s as if these people are chained to these places. They’re always going up the stairs, walking in the hallways, or sitting on a chair in the waiting room of a hospital.
The film has placed the characters on a stage, so to speak, so it can use them to change the direction of the story at any time. The maid who worked for the old woman accepts Zhou’s fake marriage proposal. In a metaphorical act, Zhou puts an old plant in a new vase. The film is filled with these metaphorical gestures. When the father and son are talking, Mr. Zhou is seen behind a dark, blurry curtain. After his fake marriage with the maid, we see him in the same position. It is as if this is how strangers see the old man’s situation. A gaze that judges Zhou for trying to survive. Just like how the police blames the maid for the disappearance of the old woman’s pension. Even we, as the audience, presume early in the film that Mr. Zhou’s bride is having an affair. Although the filmmaker tries to stop us from judging the characters and their actions (like Mr. Zhou or the Maid), our guess about the affair is proven to be true which surprises the audience.
Home Away is a small masterpiece for many reasons. It has beautiful cinematography without becoming too much, its characters are fully developed in the course of the story, it creates the story it’s trying to narrate through the characters’ relationships, and patiently creates a beautiful whole. We sympathize with the characters early in the film, the places become familiar, and the rhythm of the film never loses its balance. This is the story of ordinary people in a society where loneliness is a common feature. Everybody’s alone: The kid who sleeps in darkness, the driver whose lunch and dinner and life is that taxi, his wife who tries to fill the empty space in her life by getting close to the realtor, an old man who’s trying so hard so they won’t send him to a retirement home, an old woman whose daily naps in her empty house turn into her final resting place, a maid who will always carry the guilt of the old woman’s death… They’re all alone in this world.
The acting is one of the strengths of the film. The cast members act without any kind of exaggeration and everybody’s in the service of the story. The most significant actor in the film is Xu Caigen who is able to convey all the emotions in the life of a fragile man at that age. A calculated acting that shows every aspects of the character’s life, and constantly changes the audience’s opinion of the character. The peak in his acting can be found in the scene where he’s drunk and he cries in the street. The film has an extraordinary ending and it seems that it is the only possible ending that could lead the story to its rational end.