While we have been struggling to find any contemporary English-language movies worth watching, our problem this particular sunny Saturday was deciding which of the three appealing Chinese movies to watch. Operation Red Sea was the #2 worldwide movie of the year and looked fabulous, but also long in a way that made it impossible to see anything else if we went to see it. Instead we went with a double-feature that started with this odd little film called Shed Skin Papa (based on a Japanese play).
The story is this: A middle-aged failed filmmaker is trapped in a terrible cycle of doing nothing but kinda-sorta taking care of his decrepit, demented father. What’s left of his crappy life is about to fall to pieces even as his father is dying, and he can barely rise to showing relief, much less any real sympathy.
Then it gets weird. (And repeats a trope we’ve seen many times in recent Chinese movies: The CGI butterfly.)
Something…happens. Like, Our Hero’s departed mom casts a spell, maybe, and the apartment the two share shifts and changes and the next morning, instead of his father, all Our Hero finds is his father’s skin.
OK, he finds his father as well, only he’s no longer sick and demented. He seems a good ten years younger. And he’s kicking up a fuss in the market, even as people who haven’t seen him truly sentient in a while come after him for all the money he owes.
This is pretty funny. And things get funnier and weirder when, the next day, it happens again. Papa sheds his skin, and is younger than ever. The more it happens, the more reality changes as well, as though the past is merging with the present.
This premise becomes a vehicle for Our Hero to learn about his father (and mother) and the hopes and dreams that shaped them. They are not perfect by any means, but they are touchingly human. We find out that Papa actually did fly fighter planes (for the Glorious Chinese Air Force) and was taken out by a fluke accident, which led circuitously to him meeting Mama. And then we see their struggle as Papa sends Mama and baby to the freer cities (Shanghai, I think, not Hong Kong), and the two of them must struggle to survive as Papa figures out how to get himself there with enough money to build a life.
The movie, in other words, goes from a dark comedy to a magical drama, and then finally comes back around to a happier, lighter-hearted drama, culminating with all the Papas from various ages being alive at the same time and frankly berating each other for their poor choices. There’s also a musical number with all six.
It was unique and quirky and touching, the first film directed by ’90s action writer Roy Szeto. Let’s hope we see more.