By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - The Chinese film "Red Amnesia" shown in Venice is partly a ghost story that may or may not have a ghost, but its portrayal of how the Cultural Revolution left a trail of twisted lives that haunts China today is unambiguous and devastating.
The film by "Beijing Bicycle" director Wang Xiaoshuai is in competition for the Venice Film Festival's top Golden Lion prize to be awarded on Saturday.
"It's now been over 30 years since the economic reforms began being implemented in China," Wang said at a post-screening news conference on Thursday.
"Yet we have not been freed from the influences of the past and in our minds, we have not completely been able to move on."
The film, which has the Chinese title "Chuangru zhe", is the third in a trilogy by Wang that looks at the aftermath of the 1966-76 mass campaign launched by Mao Zedong to transform China into a militantly Communist society, which descended into violence, denunciations, purges and warfare.
It also examines how Chinese attitudes toward the elderly have changed, from a tradition of reverence to the difficulties the widow, Mrs Deng, played to perfection by veteran stage actress Lu Zhong, has dealing with her two sons, her daughter in law and even her own mother, who is in a nursing home.
One of the sons is gay and resents her showing up at the flat he shares with his lover. The other son's wife chafes at her mother-in-law's bossiness, which extends to insisting on making meatballs in other people's kitchens.
Whenever Deng goes to visit her own mother in the nursing home, the older woman refuses to eat anything she feeds her.
Wang said the bossy widow is an example of the warped personalities left over from the Cultural Revolution.
"Where does that coercive force come from? It comes from the past, the experiences of our parents and therefore they also influence us, too."
"So I really hope that ordinary people in China, seeing this film, may find it helpful to begin to think about how we can change and return to being normal human beings."
The director links modern-day Beijing to the past by giving the widow a guilty secret. As the Cultural Revolution came to an end, there were limited opportunities to move from an industrial area in the hinterlands to Beijing. In order to assure that her family got that chance, and the family of a friend named Zhou did not, she denounced him to the authorities - and got her way.
Decades later, shortly after Zhou has died, she starts receiving mysterious phone calls, in which the caller says nothing and does not respond to her frantic questions.
She begins to think it is Zhou's ghost calling her from the afterlife - and she becomes even more convinced ghosts are haunting her when a boy wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and a red baseball cap seems to be following her everywhere.
Trade publication "The Hollywood Reporter" in an online review said, "'Red Amnesia' demands patience and close attention, but the well-acted drama's enigmatic spell creeps up on you as it transitions from portraying an obsolete generation, forgotten by its children, to excavating the complicated history that same generation has chosen to forget."
Another competition film screened was director Abel Ferrara's biopic "Pasolini" starring William Dafoe as the 1960s-1970s era Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini who died in 1975 after being run over with his own car on a beach near Rome.
The homosexual Pasolini was famous for making unconventional films, including "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom" still rated among the most shocking films of all time.
There had been hints beforehand that the film would break new ground from the official line that Pasolini was murdered by a gay lover, who was convicted of the crime, but the only change it showed was three other men instigating the killing.
Derek Malcolm, a film writer and reviewer for The Guardian newspaper, called it "a little dull but perfectly respectable".
"We have seen this all before but at least Ferrara kept the lid on all his excesses, which is more than Pasolini did."
(Michael Roddy is an arts and entertainment correspondent for Reuters. The views expressed are his own)
(Reporting by Michael Roddy; Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala; Editing by Dominic Evans)