Peiqi Peng illustrates to heartbreaking effect the pain of realising where you stand with your family in her short film A Roadside Banquet. Her film will connect with many people who have encountered their own version of this pain.
11-year-old Mai is attending her baby brother’s very first birthday party when she learns a crushing truth: her parents never really wanted a girl.
In 2016, China ended its One Child policy, a policy that, as you can guess if you didn’t know, limited families to just having one child. So, when that ended, a sudden influx of baby boys were born in China. Couples wanted that son to continue the family name and traditions; this left one massive issue, though. How the female first-born children felt about effectively being told there were not enough for their parents.
You get that there is perhaps more than a tinge of truth in Peiqi Peng’s A Roadside Banquet. It all feels so on point that I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the same case for her. What strikes you, though, is that Mai learns this long into her brother’s life. She obviously has a strained and distant relationship with her father beforehand. Still, she may have never understood why until now. You see throughout the film how her father keeps his distance; you think it is because of his new child, but he is almost too happy about his youngest child.
What is enjoyable about A Roadside Banquet is how almost wholesome it is. At first, the film plays off as a sister who loves her brother and then becomes a typical older child jealous of the attention the younger sibling is now getting. It is all very sweet, even with that underlying darkness; then, when Mai sits at the table as the family is talking, it is revealed to her. Finally, she understands that her father stopped being invested in her the second she was born. She was a poor option to what could have been. Then all lightness of the film is sucked out like a vacuum, leaving only a film full of despondency.
The fact that Mai becomes what she becomes at the end of A Roadside Banquet is the perfect representation of her place in the family now. The love that was once there has been usurped by the brother that she loves and who loves her. But that relationship with her parents is broken, maybe even irreparably so. She is there to care for the house, her family, and her brother until she leaves. This sad thought stays with you, even more so if you are the older daughter to a younger brother or vice-versa. In my case, I am the younger brother, and I wonder now, is that what my family thought when I was born? I can continue the name, my strand of my family, in a way my sister may not have been able to.
A Roadside Banquet is the best type of short film; it makes its mark on your mind and gives you something to think about long after the credits have rolled. Children want to be loved and to know that no matter what, their parents love them unconditionally. For Mai, that is tragically taken away from her, a girl who still has a lot of growing to do. In fact, you sense there was already some discontent within the family circle that not only was she born a girl, but she is not how her family wants her to look. Comments about her weight, how she acts, and her interests are all little warnings thrown our way by Peng.
With a smart script and a moving performance from Sarah Zhai as the pained Mai, A Roadside Banquet will illicit many sad memories for a lot of people, and how many may even find out for the first time that they are not alone in their experiences. We have a strong film that keeps its true intent from the audience until it decides to pull the rug under our feet.
The Bolton International Film Festival is running physically from October 4th – 8th and Online from the 11th – 22nd October. For more information please click here
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