‘Some Rain Must Fall’ frames a mother’s despondency and desire

A quiet, powerful unraveling of middle class Chinese womanhood debuts at Tribeca

Yu Aier (left) stars as Cai in Qiu Yang's "Some Rain Must Fall."

Courtesy of Wild Grass Films

Chinese filmmaker Qiu Yang's Some Rain Must Fall is a masterful feature debut: a slow-burn unraveling of a middle-aged woman's psyche that reveals and obscures in equal measure. At its center is 40-something Cai (Yu Aier), an intriguingly bitter wife and mother in a small Chinese city, whose life spins out of control when she causes an unfortunate accident. In its mere 98 minutes, the understated drama explores entire worlds of thought, feeling, and desire, resulting in one of the most emotionally piercing works of cinema this year.

Now playing in the International Narrative Competition at Tribeca—where it won Best Actress and Best Cinematography—the China-U.S.-France-Singapore co-production also received the Encounters Special Jury Award at the Berlin Film Festival, an accolade that was richly deserved since the movie announces the arrival of a major filmmaking voice. Qiu's painterly approach is as overtly alluring as it is subtly suffocating; his framing and blocking cause each wall and surface to close in on Cai the more she reckons with her past. And yet, despite the story being rooted in a single incident, its drama radiates outward in layered ripples, as Yu's resolute central performance oscillates between ruthless and deeply pained.

When the film begins, Cai already reads like a wounded animal, even during an errand as simple as fetching her adolescent daughter, Lin (Di Shike), from afterschool basketball practice. Lin, however, is nowhere to be found. She seems to have cut out early, and while this inconveniences Cai, their relationship immediately feels rocky-even without Lin's on-screen presence-for more complex reasons yet to be explored. In the moment, Yu's expression tells us all we need to know, and creates an immediate sense of mystery when she acts out in anger, and launches a stray basketball back toward its owners, only to accidentally hit an old woman-the grandmother of one of Lin's classmates-badly injuring her.

This incident makes Cai persona non grata amidst her peers and even the local schoolchildren, but while it forms the backbone of the movie's plot, it's more of a catalyst for emotional elements already in the mix; it's the mere spark that lights them ablaze. Cai's spiral, from there on out, concerns not only the old woman's family, but her own. Her husband Ding (Wei Yibo) wants a divorce. Her growing distance from Lin, though it initially feels like run-of-the-mill teenage angst, turns out to be a two-way street, buoyed by a number of Cai's maternal insecurities, which the movie gradually unravels as it reveals her past.

A middle-aged Asian woman is partially obscured by a dark wall, looking at another person with short dark hair and a striped top.

In "Some Rain Must Fall," Yu Aier (right) and Di Shike play mother and daughter, with a strained relationship.

Courtesy of Wild Grass Films

All the while, Qiu and cinematographer Constanze Schmitt make devastating use of the moving image. Their narrow 4:3 frame grows even narrower in low-lit scenes-like the inside of Cai's car, where she spends plenty of time alone-with shadows and the contours of darkened spaces closing in on her like a vice. Each scene, in some fashion, boxes her in, whether through the use of pillars and other architectural fixtures when she moves through her neighborhood, or the sharp edges of doorways in her home. The frame always seems to tighten around her.

Conversely, when Qiu shoots other people in close up, he hides them behind these soft-focus edges, which results in a dual psychological effect. Cai doubts the intentions of many characters around her, like Lin's classmate (Xu Tianyi) and his poor family, who she suspects are using the grandmother's injury to extort them. However, as the film goes on, Cai's unhappiness becomes tied to her middle-class ennui. Her outlook on the aforementioned student-whose name she never bothers learning-becomes slowly but surely wrapped in notions of class divide, and eventually, class traitorship, the more we learn about her own impoverished upbringing. Her perspective may not shift, but the audience's does the more we learn about her. Before long, the obscuring edges of the frame start to feel like representations of her own blinkered outlook.

An Asian woman kneels in front of a sliding door, while holding on to a standing Asian man's arm.

"Some Rain Must Fall," recently received the Encounters Special Jury Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Courtesy of Wild Grass Films

Some Rain Must Fall's dramatic power lies not only in what it depicts, but what it chooses to omit-we never see the injured grandmother, for instance-because of how closely the film's aesthetic becomes tied to Cai's psychology, and her inability to look outside herself for fear of being hurt. The movie's visual constrictions become an aesthetic representation of a troubled mind and soul, especially in its brief, dreamlike moments when Cai is the only character or object visible on screen, in an otherwise darkened space, as though she were waiting for something or someone else to materialize, just so she could feel less alone.

Qui based some of Cai's attributes on his own mother, including her escape from poverty and her ascent to middle class wealth, though he neither demonizes the character nor crafts a hagiography. His approach is much more nuanced, and even extends to Cai's sexual desires, both when it comes to her distant husband, as well as the middle-aged woman who helps care for her ailing mother-in-law. The film is as unrelenting in its portrayal of Cai's flaws-like her refusal to fully see the people around her-as it is gentle in its unfurling of her delicate sense of being, and her inability to fully see herself outside of domestic confines. She feels lost and abandoned, and in the process, abandons those around her too.

It's a vicious cycle, on whose origins Qui gradually rolls back the curtain. In the process, Some Rain Must Fall reveals deeply moving introspections on the traumas, wants, and broken bonds that have made Cai the embittered but deeply sympathetic wife, mother, and person she is today.

Published on June 25, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter