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Welcoming Change: Nian by Lulu Wang

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

Available on Youtube

In Nian, Lulu Wang director of the Farewell invites us to find our purpose in the unknown. In Wang's first project since her award winning film of 2019, she reimagines a Chinese folk tale, the inspiration for Chinese Lunar Year, for a short film in promotion of Apple's iPhone 12 pro. The short centers on a young girl, Ah Ting (En You-Yang) who befriends a creature of myth, Nian, who in the legend makes a village afraid because he eats everything-- his favorite meal being children.

It's a tale that's apart of the villages history. While Ah Ting relaxes during a family outing for food from the woods, Nian pokes a hand out from a bush prompting Ah Ting to turn and see, but he disappears, as does the tin of rice cakes she began working on. When her parents find her, she tells them all about the moment, sure of his siting and fascinated. As they walk home, and she tells of the encounter, in her surety, the myth has evaporated in the forrest’s foggy, clean air, and she steps into reality. Back home, gazing out at the enchanted looking forest, while her mother (Hai Peng Xui) reads her a bedtime story about the functions of the sun, she asks, “Why are people scared of Nian?”. The talk bothers her father (Lin Dong) overhearing in the kitchen across. Her mother tells her because he is dangerous. Ah Ting keeps questioning and her mother tells her the dangers. Ah Ting says, “I’m not afraid of the Nian”. Yang’s performance, manifesting Ah Ting’s fearlessness is inspiring. In this moment, you feel like you want to join in on the impending encounter with Nian.

With a devastating year behind us, and cynical views influencing how to approach our current one, Wang's take, is to claim this new year. Yang’s acting draws you in deeper into the world, leading us further into enchantment. Her subtleness in movement, and confidence, make her memorable. When she returns to search for Nian and eventually finds his cave, she encounters the monster. Nian attempts to roar her away, but Ting remains calm and instead responds, “Hey”, with the authority of a no nonsense grandmother. She tilts back, plays with her fingers, and speaks in a mix of caution and courage, projecting childlike innocence flawlessly, and asks if the myths are true, offers him a rice cake, and brings the film into a calm. Through Ting, Wang's shows us that we can confront the unknown. When Ting returns home she tells her parents about the encounter that later sparks an argument between the couple. Ting’s father places blame, “You did this to her. Filling her head with all the why’s?”. Her mother responds, “She came into the world asking questions. That’s her nature”.

The idea of natural comes up in nearly every scene. From the set design of the family's house or Nian’s cave, to the gorgeous forest rendered by camera phone, that makes the viewer feel at home, to Wang’s effortless storytelling, moving along smoothly, with meaning rising, but remaining under the surface, until it needs to come out-- the film feels like a breathing life. She does the same in the Farewell--letting the true feelings and identity of the characters reveal themselves naturally by giving them time in the frame, making her character’s humanity become a part of our own lives. The same happens in Nian. After Ting returns to the cave and tries to get to know the monster, her curiosity and self trust brings her further into Nian's world, and a quick cut takes us to a close up of Ting in the forest mimicking the monster’s screams. They begin to play fight. The camera lingers just long enough to show us that Ting possesses power in the mysteries of herself she has yet to explore and use. The shot simultaneously suggests its alright to have fun in the face of uncertainty.

Ting's magic, like the essence of this monster, are already in her. After playing, some movie magic ages Ting, and now best friends with Nian, she suggests he meet the villagers. Ting’s nature is to bring understanding. Nian’s introduction is stifled a bit. Later at home, Ting has it out with her parents. “Nian is not real. We told you that story to protect you,” her father tells her. Moments later she successfully sneaks out. Her father confides in his wife, that one day they won’t be around to protect Ting and it scares him. But it is Ah Ting being herself, that helps create trust, in the end, when her father joins the family in the forest, this time looking for Nian. Wang’s short serves as an uplifting message for a new year full of uncertainty: things can be better if we allow them to be better.


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