Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Kani Releasing

Japanese director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s 1989 film “Beijing Watermelon” opens with on-screen titles announcing, “May 1989, Japan, we were in Funahashi City in Chiba Prefecture, making a movie with young actors from China and Chinese exchange students in Japan. This is based on a true account of the interaction between one Japanese grocer and a group of Chinese exchange students.” 

Thus begins a noisy, busy, disarming story of a fascinating and, at times, difficult relationship for all involved. Greengrocer Shunzo, wife Michi, and their two children operate a successful, small, neighborhood store near Chinese students’ residences. When Li comes by shopping, he discovers he can’t afford the produce. Moved by Li’s plight and a gambler himself, Shunzo plays rock, paper, scissors with Li. Soon, after several of those games, Shunzo gives Li and his colleagues discounts and much more, struck, as his Japanese friends say, by Chinese fever.

Two essential questions arise. Why does Shunzo sacrifice so much of his own well-being for the students? And when does empathetic concerns for others segue into callous disregard and myopic behavior toward his own family and to the detriment of his business as foreclosure and tax evasion charges threaten. And yet Shunzo persists, at one point noting that his father died in China. Ôbayashi says he made this 1989 film as a response to the Tiananmen Square protests/massacre taking place April 15 to June 4 of that year. “Beijing Watermelon” is a heartfelt plea for empathy, without ever spilling over into naïve idealism; that is, it presents the distressing difficulties of myopic patronage as it also finds the heart and soul of mutual support through food and song, humor and frustration, sacrifice and selfishness.

The title “Beijing Watermelon” comes from the dispute over the best watermelons: Japanese or Chinese, watermelon a treat with both countries proud of their own melons. Presented as a realistic slice of life, at times in a documentary style, surprisingly Ôbayashi breaks the fourth wall in dramatic fashion at the conclusion with a strong, concluding statement about shared humanity. In Japanese and Mandarin with English subtitles, the new 2K restoration of “Beijing Watermelon” screens at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium one night only, Thursday, June 27, at 7:30 that evening.  For more information, you may visit the film series website.

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