Wei Dan’s Warm House, also known in Chinese as “Out of the Mother’s Womb,” is a tale of the harsh realities facing a Chinese family that has a son living with mental illness. The film is as real as it can get while being fictional, since it stars Wei’s real-life older brother Wei Zheng, who is suffering from bipolar disorder.
“This is a documentary. Perhaps it is scripted, but the scenes portrayed are the real living conditions of my brother and I,” Wei Dan said in Chinese in an interview with New Era Film Festival.
It is hard to imagine a person with mental illness portray Rain Man. But this is a choice that Wei has taken in his feature film debut. According to him, due to his brother Zheng being on medication and having to sleep most of the time, the crew only had a few hours to film each day. Yet, they completed the 95 min feature in only 12 days.
Warm House is shot in 4:3 on a 4K video recorder. Most of the scenes crop in for a medium to close up of each character in action, giving the film a home-video look. In parts of the film, there is noticeable shaking. Despite the roughness, the style is very consistent throughout. The audience comes to view the film from the point of view of the protagonist, Cong Cong (Luo Tengteng), who returns from Beijing to see his brother.
Warm House excels in making its characters memorable. Many scenes are dedicated to the hobbies and aspirations of the brothers. Their mother, who works as a teacher, is also shown to be very invested in winning teaching awards in the local school board. Each character is defined by more than one trait. The audience will come to empathize for the older brother, who is only able to watch enviously as his younger brother goes off to college in Beijing.
The title Warm House is aptly named. It reveals to the viewers that had this family not have the issue of mental illness, it would be a very supportive and loving household. The idea of their son taking medicine hangs like a knife over every person’s head. It becomes a source of shame and stigma. The Chinese title, “Out of the Mother’s Womb,” is perhaps more fitting. “After you leave the mother’s womb, everything changes. We have to face too much adversity. I wanted to focus on the individual lives and souls hurt by this adversity,” Wei Dan said.
The “House” in Warm House is not merely the protagonists’ household. It is the society that they live in: small town China. The film is at times claustrophobic. The viewers see that help is limited and there is no easy way out for the older brother. By having to take care of a child with mental illness, the family is no longer appreciative of the womb-like enclosure of the Chinese society.
The relationship between the two brothers is heart-warming. We see that the older brother genuinely cares about what the younger brother thinks, and would ask for his opinion. The chemistry between the actors, however, lacks behind the script. It is an unfortunate side effect of having the real brother of the director paired with a professional actor. On the other hand, Luo Tengteng’s portrayal of the younger brother has an outsider perspective that matches the fact that the character has been living away from their hometown.
Warm House is ambitious and unique. It is rare to see Chinese films tackle the subject of mental illness, and rarer still to see it shown in such a humane light. Audiences can expect great things from Wei’s future releases.