Open communication is a luxury not often entertained in Xiang Zi’s feature debut, A Dog Barking at the Moon. Beset by a suffocating web of family secrets, Xiaoyu (Nan Ji) returns to China to give birth to her first child, with her foreign-born husband in tow. From the moment she’s back in the clutches of her toxic home, petty squabbles ensue: her mother, Juimei (Naren Hua) has taken against the family dog due to its attachment to Xiaoyu’s father.
The root cause of this malicious atmosphere is soon revealed via flashback; when Xiaoyu was a child, Juimei walked in on her husband Huang Tao (Wu Renyuan) with another man. The couple’s decision to remain married in spite of this discovery is questioned throughout the film, though repeated threats of divorce and frustration from Xiaoyu yield no power against that of tradition. Solace is found, instead, in a religious cult – much to her daughter’s disapproval.
A Dog Barking at the Moon threads this story through snapshots of family life over the years. From Juimei’s dedication to marriage as a young single woman to Xiaoyu’s childhood conflicts with her parents, director Xiang carefully constructs an image of a group of adversaries held together by societal expectations. There are few positive memories to be found within this collection, giving the film an uncomfortable sense of regret. Juimei is the creator of much of this unhappiness, though she persists in attributing blame to her husband, and Naren Hua’s exceptional performance establishes a character so narcissistic it often borderlines on the absurd. As a child, Xiaoyu is quiet and bookish in nature, yet Juimei still finds ways to blame her for all her suffering, even resorting to the conclusions of a fortune-teller who once predicted the arrival of Juimei’s ‘nemesis’. (The exact identity of this ‘nemesis’ fluctuates according to Juimei’s mood—in one scene, the rival is Xiaoyu, while in another, it is an unborn son she aborted before her daughter arrived.)
Xiang establishes an uncomfortable gaze through the use of an unmoving camera. Often positioned just outside doors, or on the periphery of a family scene, the first-time feature director demonstrates an uncanny ability to portray the feeling of being on the outside looking in. As an audience, we are uninvolved in the action, yet there is the overbearing sense of being given access to something private, perfectly demonstrating the secretive nature of Xiaoyu’s family. Scenes are often disconnected and move freely between the years, but all are rooted in a certain imbalance—an inverse of the happy family image so craved by Juimei as a young woman.
While Xiaoyu is by far the character most eliciting of our empathy, the true strength of A Dog Barking at the Moon is found within Juimei’s character. Xiang pushes her villainous matriarch to near farcical extremes, abandoning the customary humanizing tactics which frequent such complicated characters. Juimei may have suffered from her husband’s infidelity—as she points out frequently, to excuse her own cruelty—but her repeated self-victimization complicates the possibility of finding the sympathy she craves. As she continues the same cycle of emotional torment, A Dog Barking at the Moon becomes occasionally repetitive, her actions losing the impact they once had. Still, this depressing family drama provides a lot to think about as the credits roll, with Xiang Zi undoubtedly a name to keep an eye out for in the future.