Berlinale first look: A Dog Barking at the Moon is an impressive and painfully honest family portrait

Xiang Zi’s first film addresses the traumas of her childhood with maturity, humour and grace.

Rhys Handley

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Nan Ji as Huang Xiaoyu in A Dog Barking at the Moon

Nan Ji as Huang Xiaoyu in A Dog Barking at the Moon

Directing a feature film for the first time is a daunting task in any instance, but the endeavour of writing a script that deals in themes banned by your country’s government, shooting while in the second trimester of pregnancy and syncing dialogue only days after giving birth puts Xiang Zi on another level entirely. Xiang, now residing in Spain with her husband, producer and cinematographer José Val Bal, makes here an astoundingly personal and radical debut exploring a family torn asunder by tradition and trauma.

Barely fictionalised, A Dog Barking at the Moon directly addresses Xiang’s real, thorny family life, seamlessly moving back and forth between decades to understand where she comes from. The maturity and grace of the self-reflection on display and Xiang’s empathy for her imperfect parents is staggering.

Huang Xiaoyu (Nan Ji playing Xiang’s heavily pregnant surrogate in the narrative’s present day) returns home to Beijing from New York with her Western husband in tow, her outsider’s perspective shedding new light on deeply-entrenched family foibles. The film’s interpersonal conflict was triggered in Xiaoyu’s childhood, when her mother walked in on her father compromised with a male lover. The event resonates into the present, with Xiaoyu’s parents choosing to remain in a resentful, toxic marriage.

While Xiaoyu holds the central perspective throughout, Naren Hua is the feature’s standout performer as mother Li Jiumei, an obtuse and ridiculous matriarch desperately clinging to the possibility that her husband’s proclivities are a disease to be cured. (Jiumei is hardly an outrider in her values – Xiang avoided specifying the gender of the father’s paramour in the synopsis provided to China’s censorship bureau to gain shooting approval.)

Naren Hua as Li Jiumei

Naren Hua as Li Jiumei

To her daughter’s horror, Jiumei finds solace in an exploitative Buddhist cult, and the pair butt heads in standoffs that veer from detached and mundane to fervently antagonistic. With Nan positioned in a passive, observant role, it is left to Naren to cover the emotional spectrum – hers is a spellbindingly funny performance aching with tragedy.

Impressive enough for the story of its inception, A Dog Barking at the Moon is an impressive early showcase of Xiang’s cinematic craft: from the lived-in, delicately detailed design of its domestic settings to the lush sound design and tempered, patient camerawork, she and Val Ban work in tandem to create a piece as visually rewarding as it is emotionally adept. Moments of painful silence are held with evocative restraint. Creative flourishes abound – memories played out as stripped-back stage plays, or the understated overlapping of scenes past and present within a single shot – but every neat trick serves Xiang’s ultimate vision.

Devastatingly specific and thoughtfully teased out, A Dog Barking at the Moon was a hidden gem at this year’s Berlinale and a powerful opening salvo for Xiang’s filmmaking career. Dramas that accommodate nuance, humour and humanity with such deftness and confidence are rare and worth cherishing.

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