Veteran Chinese cinematographer Gu Changwei makes an impressive directorial debut with "Peacock," a film that makes an equally strong impact as family drama and political allegory. The man who photographed such revered contemporary classics as "Red Sorghum," "Ju Dou" and "Farewell, My Concubine" proves himself to be as astute and sensitive a storyteller as those films' venerated directors, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. In making an epic drama that clocks in at just under 2 1/2 hours, Gu has set an ambitious, even audacious course in his first outing as a director. But as this tale unfolds, it's just as clear that he has the talent to back up his ambitions.
"Peacock" tells the story of two brothers and a sister growing up in a provincial Chinese town in the 1970s. Narrated by the younger brother (Yulai Lu), "Peacock" revisits how each sibling made his or her break from their overbearing mother and distant father. The middle child, a rebellious, stubborn girl played with feisty spirit by Jinchu Zhang, flubs a good job at a nursery when she drops a baby; soon thereafter she decides to join the Army as a paratrooper. The older brother (Li Feng) is an obese, mentally limited boy who is his parents' pet and chief worry, and whose future is finally secured by his shrewd, unsentimental mother. The younger brother, for his part, sees his only escape in leaving town and living on the streets.
More than plot, "Peacock" depends for its force on the atmosphere Gu creates, as well as the subtlety of his metaphors. As the family suffers various forms of mistrust, manipulation and abuse of authority, it's impossible not to see the parallels with the Chinese government. But "Peacock" is just as potent as a deeply personal story of loss and defeat and, as its final, quietly breathtaking sequence suggests, a cautious kind of hope. "Peacock" is not just a promising debut, but an uncompromising one. It's a slow, sad, beautiful film.
Peacock (142 minutes, in Mandarin with subtitles) will be shown tonight at 8:45 and Thursday at 9 p.m. at Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue. It is not rated and contains a scene of animal torture and death.