Breaking the Silence (2000)
Wish You Were Hear
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
If actress Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern, The Emperor and the Assassin) is considered the Meryl Streep of China, then here's her first genuine Meryl Streep movie -- a creaky, dippy movie covered in syrupy goop and shoved down our throats wrapped in a transparent veneer of respectability and nobility.
In other words, Breaking the Silence, which opens today at the Four Star Theater, could easily pass for Streep's deplorable Music of the Heart (1999), which earned her an Oscar nomination without anyone actually liking, or even seeing, the film.
Get this: the beautiful, regal Gong Li plays a working-class single mom named Liying living in China and saddled with no less than a deaf son. Her husband is a deadbeat who left her when the "imperfect" boy was born. And so Liying tries to hold down a series of horrible and low-paying jobs just to get by, all the while teaching her son to speak normally so that he can attend a regular school.
It gets worse. The son, Zheng (Gao Xin), gets in a fight with some bullies who are teasing him and breaks his hearing aid. So Liying must raise money for another one while Zheng's hearing continues to deteriorate.
You've got it. Breaking the Silence is our disease-of-the-week flick.
Most filmmakers don't bother to do anything interesting or even logical with the disease-of-the-week flick because it already comes with so much importance and weight. Breaking the Silence is no exception. Look at I Am Sam, for example. Sean Penn received an Oscar nomination despite the fact that no one (including Penn himself) seemed to like the film.
Breaking the Silence follows all the conventional guidelines. One the one hand, Zheng, despite a brave performance by little Gao Xin, is treated at all times as a "deaf kid" and not just a "kid." If he does something wonderful, the film gives it extra meaning because it's something wonderful performed by a deaf kid. If something awful happens to him, the film makes it worse, because it's something awful that's happened to a deaf kid.
In addition, Liying's character is shown as the pinnacle of nobility, suffering only for the love of her child and caring nothing for herself or her own needs. When one of her various employers starts coming on to her sexually, we suspect that she might succumb for several reasons: she's lonely and single, and this new man would undoubtedly pony up the cash needed for Zheng's hearing aid (Monster's Ball was a film brave enough to move into this territory). But instead she pushes him away, preferring to hang onto her suffering and nobility.
The whole entire plot -- the whole blessed movie -- hinges on the fact that Liying has not fully accepted the fact that her son is deaf. The triumphant ending has her finally grasping this fact and dealing with it. Good grief. Maybe someone should explain to her that the sky is blue as well.
Such a fine actress as Gong, who usually plays princesses and empresses in colorful costumes, appearing in such a dowdy part feels like deliberate slumming -- like she's posing for a photo opportunity to show that she cares about the "little people." She's like cinema royalty -- like an Ingrid Bergman or a Grace Kelly -- trying to play a peasant and unable to pull it off.
The only thing worth praise in Breaking the Silence is the cinematography by Lu Yue (Zhang Yimou's To Live and Joan Chen's Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl), which provides an effective grimy, city atmosphere for Liying and Zheng without drawing attention to them. Unfortunately, it resorts to the usual shaky-cam to amateurishly emphasize all the hysterical scenes -- as if we couldn't figure it out for ourselves.
In addition, actress Yue Xiuqing gives a fine performance as Liying's outgoing, snide and goofy best friend. It's an enjoyable character, though you can't see why she would remain friends with such a selfless nobody as Liying.
The secret of these movies is that we trick ourselves into thinking we've spent our time doing something worthwhile. I suggest that instead of spending nine bucks or two hours on Breaking the Silence, you should donate that time and/or money to a charity and do something really worthwhile.