Nezha, screened at Mercury Cinema as part of Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival, is the debut feature film from writer and director Li Xiaofeng. The film is set in the rural city of Baocheng in 1990s China and follows the changing friendship of two girls, Wang Xiaobing and Li Xiaolu, as they come together and grow apart.
After Xiaolu transfers to Xiaobing’s school, the girls quickly become friends, bonding over shared secrets and a love of the literature of Sanmao. The young actresses Li Jiaqi and Li Haofei (as Xiaobing and Xiaolu respectively) play the two girls with nuance and charisma, and the chemistry of their relationship is the real heart of the film. The girls bring out each other’s mischievousness and defiance as they chafe against the rules of their teachers, and together they explore the natural landscape of Baocheng, stealing fruit from orchards and walking along the bank of the river. The depiction of their childhood friendship is thoroughly charming, infused with a nostalgic whimsy and carefree playfulness that is a perfect contrast to the film’s later psychological and emotional upheaval.
Outside of her friendship with Xiaolu, Xiaobing’s life is far from idyllic. Her strained relationship with her parents is put under further pressure when they separate and she is faced with the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the adult world. The two girls struggle to maintain their connection as they grow older, losing touch as they take their separate paths. This slow loss of friendship signals the film’s transition into darker territory as Xiaobing becomes increasingly alienated. Li Jiaqi captures this emotional shift with aplomb and Xiaobing’s loneliness and sense of loss is palpable.
The film plays with notions of time and memory, deftly moving non-chronologically through the characters’ lives. These jumps in time become larger and increasingly jarring as the film goes on, returning to the nostalgic innocence of childhood only to be cut off by the dark turmoil of later life. The film’s style seems to morph around Xiaobing’s emotional and psychological journey—it fractures with her, blurring the chronology more and more, at once revealing and obscuring her increasing emotional distress.
The visuals are striking too in their contrast of the natural landscape of the forest and river with the industrial shipbuilding yards and concrete housing in the city. The staging is almost theatrical at times, with its use of framing and stark dramatic lighting. The film makes full use of off-screen as well as onscreen space, deliberately concealing and revealing characters to heighten tension or for comedic effect. A quirky sense of humour permeates the film, even in its darker moments, and brings a lightness and humanity to what could otherwise be a rather disturbing film.
An impressive directorial debut from Li Xiaofeng, Nezha is a visually striking exploration of friendship, family and coming of age that is at once playful and unsettling.
Words by Justina Ashman