Why you should care
This thriller from China confronts generational and cultural anxieties — and delivers real frights.
What to do when the phone rings and you don’t know who’s on the other end of the line? Recently widowed Deng always answers — though it has been to her peril of late. Someone has taken to calling her and staying completely silent when she asks who’s there. Director Wang Xiaoshuai’s Red Amnesia may seem like a thriller that would appeal only to people whose pulse jumps when they receive a call from an unknown number, but as it unspools the film becomes a deeply unsettling exploration of the links between personal and national trauma.
The elderly Deng is an unreliable narrator, which increases the film’s tension. We see most events from her perspective, and they may not always conform to reality. She has frequent, one-sided conversations with her recently deceased husband, who occasionally materializes next to her. It’s sad, but it’s also troubling: If this is how she experiences grief, then what else is she not relaying accurately? Is anybody calling her at all?
Rarely has an octogenarian’s experience with technology caused such nerve-racking tension.
The elemental fear evoked by this simple conceit is not to be underestimated. Rarely has an octogenarian’s experience with technology caused such nerve-racking tension. Thinking that she may know who the mystery caller is while hoping she’s wrong, Deng gets a new phone with caller ID and discusses potential enemies with her children. The divide between generations further exacerbates her problems. The elderly matriarch is seen as a nuisance by her two adult sons, whom she deems disrespectful for attempting to limit her role in their lives.
There are references to a man named Fat Liu, who slowly takes on the air of a bogeyman; a business deal is said to have gone sour, leading to bad blood between his family and the widow’s. It’s when we learn the culprit’s true identity that Red Amnesia fully reveals itself as an emotionally devastating look at how insidious and inescapable the past can be.
Bérénice Reynaud, a film critic, scholar and curator who specializes in Chinese cinema, recently programmed the film as part of the China Onscreen Biennial at UCLA. She points to the country’s Cultural Revolution, along with the Tiananmen Square massacre, as “one of two major traumas in Wang’s life” and notes that, in contrast to some of the director’s fellow sixth-generation filmmakers, “it’s very clear that he’s been mining his personal history,” especially in recent works. (It’s no coincidence that Red Amnesia is the final installment in his cultural revolution trilogy, the first two being Shanghai Dreams and 11 Flowers.)
Lü Zhong is superlative in the lead role, and Wang makes expert use of the subjective point of view in charting her troubled headspace. As a handheld camera follows her closely from behind, we get so accustomed to Deng’s routine — the monologues delivered to her late husband, her habit of falling asleep with the TV on — that we’re unable to distance ourselves from these experiences or consider ourselves immune from them. We may know her husband isn’t really there, but he’s hardly the only ghost haunting her.