Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: The Choice, This Orderly Family
Against the repertoire of formal and narrative devices that have come to define conventional film language, structural filmmakers of the 1970s plumbed the seeming nothings of cinema’s simplest constituents: a single frame on a film reel, blacked or whited out for strobed projection, as in Tony Conrad’s The Flicker; or a single take in a single space, called to attention by a glacial zoom, like in Michael Snow’s Wavelength. In Gu Xue’s The Choice, there is a similar sense of a filmmaker working with the barest unit of form and concept: in one take and one room, somewhere in northern China, a family gathers to make a decision. Across the entire hour of the film’s duration, the sole motion of the camera is an incremental back-and-forth, panning the confines of a tiny living room crammed with huddled relatives.
The looming decision: how to handle the future of a comatose aunt, presently in intensive care and unlikely to wake up. Framed thus, The Choice might play like a roundtable on a loved one’s fate, where the melancholy of pre-emptive loss takes a backseat to logistics. But a deeper tension emerges in the film’s omissions. Gu elides any context that would illuminate character relations beyond factual designations—aunt, son, uncle—and limits background information to only the most conversationally imminent details: which doctor said what, how much something costs, which administrative obstacle precedes another. There is no gesture towards characterisation, no individuating psychology ascribed to this off-screen aunt (or any onscreen relative) to invoke viewer attachment or concern. What matters is the group and how it shares a collective burden as it stumbles towards a difficult consensus. Throughout that often recursive hour of meandering points and outbursts, many of the same facts and contestations are raised over and over by different relatives, as though the only way around a communicative impasse is hopeful repetition.
The centrality of the family as a particular social unit is clear in the film’s original Chinese title, literally: “Family Meeting.” Curiously, it’s the English translation that strikes me as a telling distillation of a key thematic tension. Where the title of “The Choice” uses the language of a narrative fulcrum to intrigue, ambiguously positioned as the climax in which the entire film might culminate, “Family Meeting” captures the pedestrian shape of what is, and makes room for the film’s real focus: the way generational seniority and marital status structure power (and so, decision-making) in traditional Chinese families. The social mores that regiment the meeting affect Gu’s film from the very start, revealed moments before the opening title, and before we even see anything of this orderly family: “Be quiet,” a man’s voice intones against a black screen, “first let me set the rules […] speak in order of Second aunt, Third and Fourth.” And then, the oldest rule of all: “We are younger generations, we can stay quiet.”
Phoebe Chen is a writer and graduate student living in New York.