Film Review: Family and Gender Roles Break Down in the Heart-wrenching yet Candid Drama ‘Sister’ 《我的姐姐》7 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
After losing her parents in a tragic car crash, An Ran (Zhang Zifeng) found out her parents had given birth to a son who Ran is unfamiliar with nor does she care about him. With a sudden and unexpected filial pressure and obligation that could destroy her career course, Ran has to decide if she is ready to give up on everything she had worked hard for and care for her brother.
Director: Ruoxin Yin
Cast: Zhang Zifeng, Xiao Yang
Runtime: 127 minutes
The Goliath of monster movies, Godzilla vs. Kong, met its match and was defeated at the Chinese box office by low-budget underdog film Sister《我的姐姐》. The film rides on the recent wave of popularity for locally-made, family-centric drama films in China and has been met with explosive success.
Sister’s tackling of themes such as death, traditional family values, and pressure to conform to expectations resonates with audiences especially in an era where the older and younger generation in conservative Asian societies are beginning to diverge further and further from each other in their views. Credit where credit’s due, the film is a timely study of modern societal issues and an effective one at that. All packaged in its sombre yet beautiful aesthetic, Sister is both art in its writing and cinematography.
The film gets off to a sudden but tragic start — our titular sister character An Ran (Zhang Zifeng) stands in the middle of a car wreck that has claimed the lives of her parents. They have also left behind a young son, An Ziheng (Jin Yaoyuan), whom the rest of the family believes An Ran should take in. But to An Ran, the boy is a total stranger. Not only is the age gap between them large, but Ziheng serves as a constant reminder of her own troubled upbringing.
This throws her into a world of conflict and family drama. An Ran fights back against her family’s wishes, and for good reason — her meticulously planned-out life, complete with a job, a partner, and plans for further education, are all suddenly put into jeopardy overnight. It is through these struggles that we begin to learn more about her worldview, as well as the experiences that have shaped her relatives to become who they are now.
The character development and writing in Sister are remarkable. From our main protagonist An Ran, to her younger brother Ziheng, as well as various family members, each character feels realistic and well-crafted in their motives, backgrounds, and flaws. The pacing is even without giving the impression that backstories are shoe-horned in for the sake of it.
The film takes its time to explore An Ran’s motivations and inner turmoil. We spend almost every minute of its runtime with her, even when she is alone and vulnerable. Over the course of her journey, we get the sense that she is slowly losing sense of who she is and what her life is meant for, thus she is reflecting on and rebuilding her identity. Her desire to escape her hometown and move to Beijing almost seems like her way of proving that she can still control her own life.
Her character is intricately fleshed out and the film does a wonderful job of showing us the various aspects of her life that have moulded her into who she is — she is a daughter, a sister, a niece, a girlfriend, a nurse, and a dreamer. She is fascinating yet incredibly human at the same time. The audience is taken into her shoes and left asking themselves what they would do if they were her. The answer is complicated, much like An Ran herself, but the complexity of the film comes from its ability to admit that, in real life, there are no perfect solutions.
Ziheng, the younger brother at the mercy of the family’s disagreements, is your typical kindergartener. He is naughty and mischievous, but never ill-intending nor spiteful. His innocence lends to his inability to understand what is happening in his family or what has happened to his parents. Perhaps he is the biggest victim in the whole situation. The film also never attempts to redeem his immaturity so if you have an innate dislike for children, it is not going to sell you on the idea of having kids anytime soon.
An Ran struggles with this herself, often feeling annoyed at Ziheng and losing her cool at him for his childish ways. But the film does not attempt to pull some hat trick to make Ziheng mature over the span of a few weeks, rather it focuses on those who more realistically have the capability to change and learn which are the adults. Some of the adults fall short, and it shows us how we can be let down by people who do not realise their potential to do better, but there are also adults in this film who acknowledge that life never stops presenting moments for us to grow.
An Ran’s aunt (Zhu Yuanyuan) is the most prominent familial figure pressuring her into adopting Ziheng. In many ways, she mirrors An Ran as the two women are dealt a similar hand of cards in life, But while the elder pushes the younger to accept her fate, An Ran refuses to make the same choices her aunt has.
She draws lines between herself and the people around her, characterising her as a modern woman who challenges what others expect of her, seeking to leave behind the restraints of her childhood and to now lead a life that she can dictate for herself. She refuses to overlook the unjust treatment of the women in society. Despite her youthful looks, she is clearly independent and mature in thought and speech, possibly stemming from being forced to grow up at a younger age than those around her.
Not only are its characters deep and well-developed, the film is also a great study on the myriad of issues facing families in China today. It is unafraid to tackle controversial topics such as the impacts of the one-child policy and how traditional gender roles are being forcibly imposed on a generation that is actively trying to break them down. It shows different perspectives to us, not taking sides but simply presenting them candidly in all of its good and bad.
This incredibly bold approach should be applauded, and it has been effective in engaging and picking the brains of its audiences. The hashtag “How to evaluate the movie Sister” has garnered 180 million views on Chinese social media site Weibo. The lasting impression that Sister has had on its viewers and the debates it has sparked is truly the mark of a profound and thought-provoking film.
Sister is a great example of showing, rather than telling. The way the camera gazes upon the scene makes the viewer feel like an onlooker who is present in the moment with the characters. We dance together with An Ran on top rooftops and run with her through the city. The slightly muted colours add a tinge of gloominess while the visual’s cool tones further emphasise how cold and distant our characters feel towards each other. But as they warm up to one another, so too do the colours as a representation of this.
There is also a charm to films that are shot in places other than bustling cities, with the landscapes naturally providing a more visually interesting backdrop than cookie-cutter concrete buildings. Some of the places that stood out the most include An Ran’s far from glamorous home in stark contrast to the pristine houses of Ziheng’s potential adopters, as well as the sprawling gravestones covering the mountainside of the cemetery where An Ran’s parents are laid to rest.
Whether you are a woman yourself who has been a victim of a patriarchal system, a child wrestling with what filial piety means, or just someone who is still discovering what life has in store for you, Sister is a film that you may find connecting with you and embodying just a glimpse of life’s toughest yet most unseen battles.
Sister is now showing in cinemas islandwide.