Writer-director Liu Jie’s social realist drama Baby, screened last 11 December at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao under New Chinese Cinema, sharply examines the plight of Chinese children who are abandoned because of their disability or medical conditions.
Jie’s cinema verite style renders the film visually and emotionally authentic. Driven by naturalistic performances, with Jie making use of non-actors to play the police and medical staff, Baby feels intensely raw, propelling the audience to engage in the argument between the value of human life versus state laws.
Jie never bothers with theatrics and frills and goes right ahead to the point. The film opens with the film’s headstrong heroine, the 18-year-old Jiang Meng (exceptionally played by Yang Mi), harshly questioning a foster mother on her ability to genuinely care for her malnourished and physically deformed foster child.
Immediately, we realize Meng is a crusader, an exacting staunch defender of the disabled and the neglected. For Meng, there are no grey areas when it comes to caring for a child. There are no excuses in saving a human life.
Soon we discover that Meng is also a foster child, abandoned when she was a severely sick baby requiring multiple surgeries, rescued by an agency when she was two, and raised by a single foster parent.
Meng, who refuses to be restricted by her disability and social status, reluctantly accepts a job as a janitress in a children’s hospital. There, she witnesses a baby girl suffering from the same congenital illness that she had, and overhears that the baby’s father (Guo Jingfei) rejects any form of relief or treatment for his baby and wishes the baby to die.
Deeply outraged, Meng starts a couragous and determined fight to save the life of the baby, and in the process, gets in conflict with the police, the medical staff and with the baby’s father.
To those surrounding Meng, the teen sometimes comes off as unsound, intrusive and self-righteous. Meng’s caring deaf childhood friend XianJun (brilliantly played by Taiwanese actor Lee Hong-Chi), is resigned to the governing laws and encourages Meng to quit her baby rescue mission and just focus on taking care of herself and her future.
There are plenty of difficult scenes to watch, particularly the sight of a dying infant having trouble breathing. And watching a tiny human life abandoned in a hospice to die is deeply disturbing. Yet these harrowing scenes are necessary to understand Meng’s relentless pursuit to rescue the child. Leaving a sick child to die — and it’s a slow and cruel death — is plain and simple murder.
The film is also a study of faith and hope. Meng’s inspiring hope is rooted in her own survival. The crime of the baby’s father, who can very well pay for his baby’s treatment, is not just the act of abandoning her, but his lack of hope — readily concluding that his daughter’s future is bleak. He’d rather she die soon than “suffer” as a disabled person throughout her life, never entertaining the possibility that she might turn out okay and capable.
Chinese director Jie, whose previous films also tackle societal ills, much like the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza, gives Baby a powerful voice without resorting to melodrama and propaganda. His film, a grim and steely commentary of contemporary Chinese society, compassionately examines people with disablities living under China’s culture and laws.
It also presents a debate on practicality over the pursuit of satisfacation. Why not marry a rich divorcé and be guaranteed a secure future rather than wait for true love? Why not just accept a blue-collar job with a guarantee of daily meals and shelter instead of pursuing your dreams? Meng is constantly being molded by society to be practical rather than be idealistic.
Jie’s Meng is a silent hero, a symbol of human resiliency, lost in a system bigger than her. It’s a tale of a one-woman fight for utopia and justice in the midst of ugly reality where the mere act of living feels like a curse. The film gives insight into the mindset of the baby’s father: the baby is suffering, her agony is stretched out until her demise, which is days or weeks from now — but is that worse than surviving into adulthood and be subjected to an existence burdened by disability?
While deeply depressing because of its factual basis, the film is an essential film to to see. Baby is more than just a commentary on the plight and the future of disabled children abandoned by their parents, but also a taut and painful study of a world where care, hope and love are more often than not lost cases against an austere set of rules and cultural values.
4.5 out of 5 stars