Who would expect a family drama fueled by apiary disputes to be so captivating? Diedie Weng’s “The Beekeeper And His Son” reads as dry just by its title. Even 80 minutes of footage about bees and the keeping thereof sounds abidingly dull, the kind of low-urgency doc you’d maybe stumble across while mindlessly channel-surfing late in the evening; you’d watch it for lack of anything better, and you’d fall asleep to the thrum of the hive and the gravitational pull of your own boredom. But “The Beekeeper And His Son” isn’t boring. Against all odds, it’s engaging, entertaining, even — shock of all shocks — exciting. Mostly, it’s human, which is movie-critic code for “artsy,” but boy, is Weng’s portrait of stubborn humanity something to savor.
It’s also slim in terms of plot, but that happens to be to the film’s benefit. The story of “The Beekeeper And His Son” is summed up thusly: Lao Yu, an irascible old beekeeper in Northern China, butts heads with his son, Maofu, over how best to run the family beekeeping business. That’s it. That’s the movie in a nutshell. There’s more, of course, like Niang, Lao Yu’s wife, and Maofu’s mother, who is fated to spend most of her time playing referee between them as they bicker; there’s a handful of various farm animals to care for, from dogs to geese to pigs; and of course, there are the bees, the pivot point for Lao Yu’s strife with Maofu. If you want to boil down “The Beekeeper And His Son” to its particulars, though, just boil it down to that: strife.
But strife is a pretty big existential sandbox to play in. Is “The Beekeeper And His Son” a movie about the difficulties of farm life? Is it about the generational gap that divides men like Maofu, who’s in his early 20s, from their elderly fathers? (Lao Yu is in his early 70s; if he isn’t lavishing care upon his bees or criticizing Maofu into submission, he’s lamenting that soon he’s going to die. It’s less morbid than it sounds, but it’s still pretty morbid.) Is it about the value of good, hard work? Is it about China itself, the world’s leading carbon-emitting country, where the air-quality index wavers between “very unhealthy” and “hazardous”? Lao Yu’s frustrations have roots not only in his relationship with Maofu, but with the sustainability of his calling. (Note: Air pollution is especially bad for bees, which means it’s also especially bad for beekeepers.)
You can answer in the affirmative to one or all of these, and either way you’d be right. “The Beekeeper And His Son” is a malleable film; it’s about whatever you want it to be about, because Weng made the very wise choice not to impose any grander agenda on her subjects or influence their behavior in any meaningful way. She is acknowledged by the family more than once, a fly on the wall who gets invited to the table for dinner. In one instance, as Lao Yu goes on a vicious, unprovoked rant over Maofu after the kid suggests setting up a tarp over the pig pen, she’s even used as the conversational equivalent of the nuclear option: “Diedie is filming everything here,” Niang snaps, fed up with her crotchety husband’s insistence that everything Maofu does is worth kvetching about.
Lao Yu is an old-school kind of guy, a traditionalist both in beekeeping and in familial relations. He’ll bitch to the high heavens if you don’t meet his expectations or cater to his needs, but he’d probably sooner drop dead than voice either. As most grumpy old men tend to be, he’s adorably charming as long as you keep your distance, which makes us the most significant beneficiaries of Weng’s artistry: We have the ultimate distance from the hardships that fall on Lao Yu, Niang, and Maofu’s shoulders, and that lets us see all of Lao Yu’s myriad faces. He’s a tough old codger, he’s emotionally aloof to most of the humans we see in the film, he’s more invested in his bees than in his own child, and at his very worst he’ll kick a dog or slap a pig with a shovel. But he’s also introspective and obviously scared of his mortality, worried about the future of his farm, and anxious over Maofu’s growing pains. (He’s a hell of a grandpa, too, as we see from a handful of moments spent with him and his daughter’s baby.)
And this is what’s remarkable about “The Beekeeper And His Son”: Weng’s layers of separation actually wind up fostering a surprising sense of intimacy. The uglier aspects of Lao Yu’s life with Niang and Maofu (and, yes, the bees) aren’t glossed over or softened. Rather, they’re sharpened, and that’s the key to making the movie work. Weng’s immersive style of filmmaking is ballsy in its required commitments; it’s no small thing, sticking so closely to people living at the edge of both society and sustenance, and Weng’s dedication to her story is impressive, to say the least. If it’s fair to say she’s upstaged by her stars, then she still deserves credit for bringing their story to audiences with such compassionate, personal filmmaking. [B]