Sister review: Touching film about gender inequality in China

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Sister stars Zhang Zifeng as An Ran and Darren Yowon Kim as her brother An Ziheng. (Photo: MM2 Entertainment)
Sister stars Zhang Zifeng as An Ran and Darren Yowon Kim as her brother An Ziheng. (Photo: MM2 Entertainment)

Length: 127 minutes
Director: Yin Ruoxin
Cast: Zhang Zifeng, Xiao Yang
Language: Mandarin with English and Chinese subtitles
Release details: In theatres 13 May (Singapore)

4 out of 5 stars

Sister is a Chinese production starring Zhang Zifeng as An Ran, whose parents died in a car accident. She later finds out that she has a little brother An Ziheng (Darren Yowon Kim), who was born after she went to college. An Ran becomes torn between leaving her brother to go to Beijing to further her studies, and giving up everything to take care of her brother.

One of the best Chinese films recently, Sister explores societal issues in China, specifically the one-child policy and gender preference. It is heartbreaking to see that young An Ran is forced to pretend to be a cripple, just so that her parents can be approved to have another child. The difference in treatment between a daughter and a son becomes sadly apparent as well, when An Ran said her memory of her deceased father was getting beaten by him, who had never laid a finger on Ziheng.

Through two sets of sister-brother relationships — one between An Ran and Ziheng, and one between An Ran’s father and aunt — the movie highlights the sacrifices that the elder sisters have to make, often for the benefit of the younger brother. The story of An Ran’s self-sacrificing aunt throws light on how things may turn out, and represents an older generation’s thinking. The story of An Ran is then a device to point out the faults of an outdated mindset, and how women should stand up for themselves.

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A third sister-brother relationship, although less obvious, is the one between An Ran’s mother and uncle Wu Dongfeng (Xiao Yang). Different from the other two relationships, the story is more focused on how Dongfeng is an aloof and good-for-nothing uncle, who is estranged from his daughter. He represents a “bad outcome” of the one-child policy and gender preference, who enjoys many privileges as a son, but turns out to be very incapable in life.

Zhang’s exceptional performance as An Ran overflows with conflicting emotions. It is very difficult not to feel her exasperation at the newfound, unwanted responsibilities. Kim’s portrayal of Ziheng is also very engaging. How can one bear to leave an endearing, innocent-looking kid in the hands of strangers? While it is easy to sympathise with An Ran’s predicament, it is even more saddening to see a young boy, who barely understands that he has lost his parents, getting put up for adoption like an unwanted child.

The dialogue in Sister is mostly in the Chengdu dialect, or Southwestern Mandarin. While it adds flavour to the movie, it can be challenging at times to understand them verbally — thankfully there are English and Chinese subtitles. It also increases the difficulty for the actors to execute the dialogue. But perhaps due to the effort put in to practise the dialect, they did not sound fake. In particular, Xiao Yang seems like a natural in such dialects.

If you are going to catch Sister in theatres, don’t forget to bring some tissues or a handkerchief along, for there are many touching scenes that are bound to trigger your tear ducts. Sister may be a long and slow-moving movie with a runtime of 127 minutes, but you will not regret watching this

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