Stonehead (Zhu Hongbo) is a third-grader living with his grandmother in rural China. His parents, like most in the village, have left for the city to earn money, leaving Stonehead behind. A model student, he wins a merit certificate and a free football, however the following day his teacher insists the football is a gift for the entire school and not personally for him. When the ball deflates the first time it is played, it sets off a chain of accusations, recriminations and vicious bullying by his classmates; directed not at Stonehead but his best friend Pouchy (Cai Jiakun) instead.
Stonehead is a small, intimate Chinese drama from first-time director Zhao Xiang. Xiang had previously assisted director Wang Xiaoshuai on films like Beijing Bicycle, and visibly brings a lot of that experience to bear on his own work. It is a fiercely naturalistic piece, with documentary-like photography and a lack of non-diegetic music. Along with the realistic framework comes a deliberately low-key screenplay and hugely naturalistic performances. It may be a relatively typical low-budget Chinese drama, but it is a rather effective one.
Stonehead is ultimately a fairly savage portrayal of childhood bullying. It does not sensationalise its subject matter, and it does not exaggerate it to extremes. It presents the sort of behaviour that occurs in any given playground around the world, regardless of nationality or culture. It is quietly devastating to watch: the taunts, the mean nicknames, the active exclusion from playing in the schoolyard, and the pranks. It all rings truthfully and actively hurts to watch. Cai Jiakun and Zhu Hongbo both give tremendous performances, particularly given their age. Jiakun in particular is remarkable in the manner in which his anguish and rage just bottles up without an avenue to vent until he resorts to throwing hay at one antagonist’s sheep.
Beyond the bullying itself it seems a tragedy of errors. Both Stonehead and Pouchy pool their efforts at first to remedy the situation: if they can buy a replacement ball for the one which deflated, then Pouchy might be forgiven. Their attempts to raise the money – in depressingly small increments – do not enjoy much success, although it does at least give them a blunt lesson in market forces. When Pouchy gives up, Stonehead pushes to even less advisable extremes that put his own standing in danger – not only with the other students but with his stern, authoritarian teacher as well. Altogether it makes for a surprisingly riveting drama, albeit one of the most depressing children’s films I can recall seeing.
Most interesting of all is how, when it all collapses around Stonehead, everybody simply wants to move on. He expects a harsh punishment from his teacher; the teacher would rather he simply go back to class. He expects to be ostracised from his classmates; they would rather he just kick a new ball around with them. It feels like a subtle indictment of Chinese society: do not rock the boat, do not make trouble, avoid conflict and simply soldier on keeping the peace. The film may conclude with the superficial veneer of calm, but how much has been lost? How much remains irreparably damaged?
Stonehead is playing at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs from 3-20 August 2017.