Words simply can’t express what Chinese New Year means to a Chinese person. It’s a time of celebration, reflection, and lots and lots of all things red. But for those of us who haven’t seen our loved ones in a year, Chinese New Year takes on a new meaning. The dinner table becomes a battleground: a fight over who had the best year and the breeding ground for juicy family gossip. It might as well be a nightmare.
So goes the plight of the main character of Hao Zheng’s family drama New Year’s Eve. Xiaoyu (Qi Sun), a 19-year old kung fu student, returns to his family home in mountainous China to come face to face with his family. His father (Jizhong Zhang), a construction worker, greets him warmly as he enters the door. His mother (Grace Chang) is less than thrilled at her son’s arrival–almost immediately she points out a facial wound he got from practice and scolds him for not telling her about his injuries. In that one scene, Zheng sets up the uncomfortable tension between Xiaoyu and his disapproving mother.
As Xiaoyu’s cousins and other family members arrive, it becomes obvious that they only serve the make the situation worse. Xiaoyu’s aunt (Leann Lei) wheels in the gift of a giant television for the family (her husband’s business has done particularly well this year, she exclaims) and cousin Yang (Huanzhang Zhang) is doing well in college with prospects to go to an American exchange program very soon. Meanwhile, Xiaoyu tries to tell people about his experience as a kung fu student, only for his comments to fall on deaf ears. As the night goes on, his mother seems more and more interested about how fantastic her nephew is doing, while wholly ignoring her own son’s achievements.
For those people who didn’t take a traditional career path, Zheng’s family drama cuts particularly deep. In an Asian household, there’s the mindset that the parents work hard to provide for their children while they go on to become students of prestige–doctors, lawyers, and nurses are the only acceptable career paths for most. Kung fu students? Definitely not on that list.
Chang plays the part of Xiaoyu’s mother perfectly–there’s a curtness to her demeanor and her disapproving facial expressions that cuts deeper than anything she could possibly say. As we follow Xiaoyu and his desperate attempts to win her over–to prove to her that he’s not a failure–there’s a sense of pointlessness. Her mind has already been made up about Xiaoyu’s career choices. However, even though she wanes off any of his attempts to make her smile on the most important day of the year, there’s an underlying feeling of love that still exists between mother and son. “He’s still a child,” she protests when Xiaoyu is offered a celebratory shot of alcohol. Despite proclaiming that she doesn’t drink, she reaches over and downs the shot on Xiaoyu’s behalf, stunning everyone at the table. Her disapproving looks are thus given another dimension–they’re filled with worry about what her child’s future is going to be like.
That’s where Zheng succeeds in his film. With his distant, never-intrusive camera, Zheng’s drama plays out in real time, beautifully framing his subjects with an unspoken melancholy about what is and isn’t said. New Year’s Eve is heartwrenching only because it depicts the strained relationships between an Asian mother and child with pinpoint accuracy. Everything from the inclusion of the ever-successful relatives to the slightly-drunk, goofy uncles to the stifling matter-of-fact “happiness” about the New Year speaks to anyone who has had to confront their parents about any less-than-ideal situation.
New Year’s Eve is thus a film for all of the dreamers, the non-traditional risk takers, and the kung fu masters. Though Zheng doesn’t offer a solution for his family drama (Xiaoyu’s mother never fully accepts her son’s choices), there’s a sense of camaraderie that extends beyond the screen to everyone watching. “For all the Xiaoyus out there,” Zheng seems to say, “you’re not alone.”
Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think.
He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.