Director/Screenplay – Lina Yang, Producers – Vivian Qu & Lina Yang, Photography – Min Wang, Music – Yoshi Hanno, Production Design – Shaoying Peng. Production Company – Sodium Productions
Siyuan Zhao (Fang Lei), Ju Jia (Husband), Xue Hong (Hong), Pongpazroj Dej (Man in Dreams), Xing Yifan (Yifan)
Fang Lei lives in Beijing with her husband and raises a young daughter. She begins to have intense dreams in which a man appears and makes love to her. She cannot see his face or touch him. Her dream lover begins to take over her life. She is warned by a Buddhist monk that this is an evil spirit that will destroy her. This seems born out when she confesses the existence of her dream lover to her husband and he leaves her, taking their daughter.
Longing for the Rain is the first dramatic film from Chinese director Lina Yang, previously a documentary-maker, having made Old Men (2000) and The Wild Herbs of Qingdao (2009).
I went into Longing for the Rain with low expectations. The Dragons and Tigers section of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which specialises in Asian cinema, has become universally regarded amongst the local critical fraternity as the festival’s constant bugbear for constantly foisting dull, pretentiously awful and amateurish work masquerading as art off on the public. This year’s festival alone has produced such unwatchable films as Stray Dogs (2013) and Yumen (2013) and I still hold against organiser Tony Rayns the lost hours of my life spent sitting through the likes of The Family Complete (2010), Year Without a Summer (2010), Honey Pupu (2011) and A Fish (2012).
Longing for the Rain surprises on its low expectations. It becomes a work of Chinese sexuality, even at times erotica – not exactly a topic that China has specialised in before. For this alone, you have to applaud its frankness on these matters, let alone discussing martial difficulties and issues of women’s desire. The plot feels like a film like Dream Lover (1986) or the even older The Night Walker (1965) about a mystery lover appearing to a woman in her dreams. (This basic idea was appropriated by various works of softcore erotica during the 1990s video/cable era).
On the other hand, Lina Yang has very different ambitions in mind – she seems to be wanting to make less a work of erotica than a film about female desire from a women’s point-of-view. In interviews, she even speaks about how she had her own mystery dream lover. You can see her clear influence as a documentary-maker. The opening scenes interviewing the nannies look very much as though she had shot these using real applicants. Much of the everyday drama is shot in handheld digital camerawork and you get the impression that scenes, especially those where Siyuan Zhao deals with her grandmother, have been improvised. On the other hand, when it comes to the love scenes, Yang opens up with lushly staged and carefully lit shots, all edited in subliminal briefs intended to convey sensual impressions (and where we never get to see the face of the man in the dream).
Longing for the Rain builds up an intriguing mystery and I was wondering where it was going to go with everything. The third act seems to drop the ball somewhat where the dream lover gets forgotten and the drama concentrates on Siyuan Zhao’s upset at her husband abruptly leaving her after she confesses all to him. Moreover, the film never follows through as a fantasy film. Indeed, there are times it even verges on going in the direction of a horror film – in one scene, a Buddhist priest tells Siyuan Zhao that there is a malevolent spirit on her back and that it will destroy her life and you expect the film to turn into a struggle to rid herself of the spirit. However, this gets forgotten about. Indeed, a different priest contradictorily presents the dream man as more benevolent, although there is a later scene where they are seen trying to exorcise the spirit. The film ends with a lack of resolution, leaving Zhao neither reconciled with her husband or reunited with her daughter, nor free from the dream lover. Also you get the impression from these scenes that Yang does not believe either of these interpretations. A completely different, more genre-identifying film might have shown a supernatural struggle but Yang’s direction remains agnostic, neither confirming nor denying the validity of the Buddhist interpretation (either the benevolent or the malevolent one) even as her heroine seeks refuge in it.