Transgendered Huanyu (Yuan Weijie) seeks to get reassignment surgery to physically become a woman; however, before the operation can take place, Huanyu must convince his father Jianguo (Huang Jingyi) to sign off on the procedure as parental consent is needed. Being a devout Christian, Jianguo is adamantly opposed to such a thing and the revelation about the secret life of his only son rattles him and his faith to its core. As father and son try to reconcile their dreams and needs as a family, Huanyu must also come to terms with how the society in China will react when he becomes fully outed and a woman.
A powerful examination on the modern state of LGBT politics and social order in China, Director Zhang’s intimate and beautifully shot film features stellar acting and direction but fares less well when compared with similar efforts from Western countries considering the plethora of similarly themed material. That’s not to say that this film is derivative, absolutely not; it features some very culturally specific opinions on smaller Chinese cities and the state of Christianity in a changing country. Some harsh indictments do persist here; from hypocrisies in religion, lack of social awareness, and the general ignorance of a huge swath of people in the most populist country in the world. It’s definitely more likely that this film would play more powerfully locally than internationally because of how infrequently these subjects have been explored in their own popular media.
Yuan’s Huanyu is great as the lead who struggles amidst a strong support system of friends and compatriots but is unable to find footing with his family and belief system. Multiple scenes challenge his ability and desire to exist as he wants and the stigma of his need to be a woman has very real conflicts internally as well as externally. It’s a quietly brooding and intimate performance that visually articulates his depression, confusion, and sadness. Huang’s role as the father Jianguo is perhaps the most exploratory in the film; his anger and attempts to ‘pray the gay’ away are expected but his growth as a character, as well as his dueling affections for his son against his beliefs as a Christian take center stage. Emotionally explosive, as opposed to Yuan’s take, it’s a powerhouse performance that has more than a few memorable scenes. The standout performance certainly lies with Deng Gao’s portrayal of Liu Mann, Huanyu’s friend who has successfully received gender reassignment surgery but continually faces ridicule and challenges in an unenlightened world. It’s a powerfully important role and Deng’s scenes with both father and son propel the film forward.
With strong performances and stunningly shot black and white photography, The Rib is definitely a film built for an arthouse crowd but not so much so that viewers interested in the subject will be turned off or bored. Heartfelt, human, and real, The Rib is one of the more meaningful films I’ve watched thus far from the 18th NYAFF.
You can read this review and more at Cesar’s official website, , Filmsmash.com