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Daily Helping for September 20th, 2021 – Brother – Zhao Wei

A photo still from the short film Brother by Zhao Wei. It shows lead actors Zhang Zhehan and Sen Wang. They are riding a motorcycle, one behind the other, both wearing helmets. The one in back is smiling while the one in front is not.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how much longer this film will be available online. Both the director and lead actor have been effectively erased from the Internet as part of China’s current clampdown on the Chinese entertainment and technology industries. I have been following this situation closely, and let’s just say I have A LOT of opinions about what’s happening. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about the short film Brother, directed by Zhao Wei and starring Zhang Zhehan, Sen Wang, and Zhi Wang. It is a beautiful film, and thankfully, it is still available online for international audiences. You can watch it on Youtube here. I also found a translation with English subtitles here.

Brother tells the story of two brothers, Wang Yue and Wang Chao. Due to a car accident when they were children, Wang Chao, the older brother, has a mental disability, and as a result, Wang Yue has been looking after him for years. This causes tension with his partner, who is tired of the burden Wang Chao is placing on their lives. When she finally gives Wang Yue an ultimatum, the film chronicles his journey to make a choice about how to move forward. Specifically, if he should move forward with or without his brother.

This film is not particularly complex in its plot. But the emotional depths and relationship complexities that it explores are astonishing. Especially considering its run time of just 26 minutes. All three characters are fully realized, complex, and nuanced, and they never succumb to the easy stereotypes they could have. As a result, you feel the conflict and tension between them deeply, and I was riveted watching and wondering what was going to happen. I’m not going to spoil it, but I will say that it was emotionally devastating. And yes, this film made me cry. Multiple times. Although I doubt that will come as much of a surprise at this point.

Everything about this film is incredibly well done, but it is particularly anchored by the performance of Zhang Zhehan as Wang Yue. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in this film, meaning the majority of his performance comes through his movements, looks, and facial expressions. And it is extraordinary beautiful. The decision his character is being forced to make is agonizing, and he makes you feel that agony every step of the way. A lot of people have commented on his performance for its subtly in tone inflection to convey meaning, but sadly all of that was lost on me because I don’t speak Mandarin. But I believe them. This performance is both subtle and powerful, and it was a joy to watch. Even if watching it meant getting sucker punched in the stomach with feelings over and over again.

Which is why I found the experience of watching this film so sad. Zhang Zhehan is clearly an incredibly talented actor, and I’d love to follow his career for years to come. But I can’t, because as far as China is concerned, his career is over. According to those with knowledge of the Chinese entertainment industry, he will likely never work there again. All of his previous work has been taken down in that country, and his presence online has been completely erased. I can’t even imagine what that must be like as an artist, but I hope he’s doing all right. I hope he has friends and family surrounding him and supporting him. And if his career truly is over in China, I really hope another country will take him in. Talent like this should not be wasted.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!