Maybe the title “Mosaic Portrait” is the perfect fit for Zhai Yixiang’s sophomore feature that has recently premiered in competition of Karlovy Vary. We shall get the “mosaic” and the “portrait”. But, boy, what a frustrating experience it is, since for the most of the time the pieces of mosaic seem so random and we are not exactly sure what or whom the writer-director is actually portraying.
The story gets in gear somewhere in provincial China with an unexpected pregnancy of a teenage girl Xu Ying (Zhang Tongxi in her screen debut) for which she accuses one of the teachers in her school, but the film opens with her at the oculist, having an examination for shortsightedness. The techniques Zhai employs via his director of photography Wang Weihua: blurriness, parts of the screen darkened, transitions from unfocused to focused image, pretty obviously point out that young Ying’s perspective might not be that precise and accurate.
The reason for that might be hiding in the situation at home. Her largely absent migrant worker father Guangjun (Wang Yanhui, pretty active on the Chinese genre scene recently) tries to make up for his absence with strictness on the verge of harshness towards Ying, her mother and basically everybody who gets on his way. He starts his own investigation that proves to be futile early on when the headmaster decides to give support to one of his employees. Luckily, the reporter from the nearest big city Jia (Wang Chaunjun) thinks there is a story in it and joins in to add some pressure to the school and the local police while also being interested in Ying’s profile.
But the real mystery here is Ying herself who, apart from the initial accusation, does not seem to get involved in the whole affair. Obviously, she craves for attention and in all the chaos that ensues, she finally feels like somebody, rather than nobody. There is a pretty clear social commentary there and it is about the toxic mixture of state-enforced One-Child Policy and the atavistic machismo and patriarchy that results in female children being less loved, less desired and considered to be a failure since they are born, till the end of their lives. So Zhai stays with her, even when the mystery is solved (she has to pay the largest chunk of the price for that) and follows her to a big city-located institution for troubled girls where she seems to be thriving in a predominantly female surrounding. But does she really and do the other girls there really?
As long as Zhai stays with his protagonist, portraying her inner life and landscaping the world around her, “Mosaic Portrait” seems to be a meaningful and effective piece of filmmaking, largely due to Zhang Tongxi’s naturalistic acting and the unsentimental stance he takes towards society. However, Zhai is not that confident as a storyteller, so when he drags it into focus, it remains meandering and losing its threads over the course of the film. The frustrating part is that we are never really sure what of the two was initially on the director’s mind, so the “mosaic” part in it is largely synonymous with “chaotic”, only from time to time furnished with some nice and evocative visual touches.