What makes a good story?
Director Jiayin Liu’s latest work, All Ears 不虚此行 is about life, death, and all the stories in between. The film stars Hu Ge as Wen Shan, a failed screenwriter who does freelance work writing eulogies. Despite the heavy topic of death, the actors’ delivery of the dialogue carries a certain humour that had the entire theatre laughing in unison. Director Liu gently pieces together fragmented scenes and evocative sound effects, creating space for the audience to imagine along with the protagonist.
The word that comes to mind when I look back on this film is “日常”, or “everyday”. From the moment we meet Wen Shan waiting on a bench, pulling out a water bottle to drink; to when we see him move through his tiny apartment, doing laundry and clipping his nails—everything says, this is an ordinary man, living an ordinary life.
Set in the hustle and bustle of Beijing, Wen Shan stands out as someone who moves half a beat slower than everyone else. An air of melancholy lingers over him, even as he goes above and beyond to understand these people who have passed, just to better tell their story to the people they have left behind.
As a fellow writer, Wen Shan’s dedication and fascination with people and the stories inherent within them touched my heart deeply. He wants to sit where they sat, see the view they saw every day. He observes the people around him keenly, always striving to find the real story behind their behaviour. Wen Shan takes his role as a writer seriously and with weighty responsibility.
The protagonist of All Ears is a writer who is confronted with the truth that because he is ordinary, he glorifies the ordinary.
But then again, ordinary people can be protagonists, too.
There are three major eulogies he works on through the film. Each showcases the different ways people grieve. An estranged sister who disputes the way her brother should be remembered. The workaholic man whose role as a son has ended but whose role as a father must now take centre stage. A coworker who barely has time to grieve because he is working desperately to make his friend’s vision come true. All of them provide glimpses into the lives of the dearly departed.
That’s what the film is truly about: ordinary people. All the complicated feelings we have about each other, the unspoken regrets, the bittersweet memories—and most of all, the compassion we can offer each other.
In helping a woman chase the memory of a man whose eulogy has already been long since finished, Wen Shan says this: “I don’t think he was weak. I think he was kind. Two words which are often confused for each other.”
Wen Shan does not just write other people’s stories. He listens. He offers the kindness we often forget about in these fast-paced cities where we struggle to be heard.
Watch the trailer for All Ears.
What makes a story worth telling?
This film is also about what it means to be a writer.
While Wen Shan is acknowledged as a great writer of eulogies, he is unhappy with what he has become. He is afraid of telling his parents that he is working for a funeral home. He feels, in his own words, as if he is stuck in the second act of his life.
Writing can sometimes be a very isolating experience. It is a craft honed by hours and years of self-criticism, only to be sharpened once again by the unyielding jury of readers. I’m sure all writers have received feedback that their characters are too flat, their plot too boring, that their story is just missing that spark. And it is devastating every time.
I see this disappointment and stagnation reflected in Wen Shan’s relentless pursuit of the extraordinary within the ordinary lives of ordinary people. One can say his integrity as a writer remains ever present, even if the stories he is writing can never be truly whole, or that only the funeral attendees will ever hear it. But one can also say his spirit as a writer is lost, relying on secondhand details of someone else’s life.
There’s a line in the film that made me bawl like a baby in the crowded theatre:
“Even if only one person knows it, the story is still worth writing.”
My biggest fear is that one day I’ll put down my pen and realize no one is reading my words. But All Ears carefully cradles my hands and tells me that even if no one else will read my stories, I will.
And isn’t that enough?
All Ears screened at Vancouver International Film Festival 2023.