The New York Asian Film Festival runs from June 28 to July 14. For more information, click here.
Whatever else one has to say about Push and Shove, this much is clear: it played the pet owners in the audiences like a violin.
Really, from the pastel tinged animated credits that traced the history of family pet Nicole, there were more awwws out of this audience than I’ve seen in quite some time. And when the thing that happens very early on happened, the resultant gasps were just as pronounced. But Push and Shove is more ambitious than your average dog movie; it has things to save about class, storytelling, honor, and society itself. That it manages to explore its themes while still including the sheer tonnage of dog reaction shots is a credit to the talents of screenwriter turned first time director Wu Nan.
Push and Shove is the story of screenwriter Feng and his family, an upper class clan that gets into a dispute with their neighbors, the wealthy Wei clan, led by a matriarch that is only ever referred to as ‘The Old Lady’, who has a habit of housing stray dogs. When one of her dogs, a Tibetan Mastiff called Furball, gets loose and invades the Feng household, Nicole does what a good dog does and tries to protect her family… which does not go as well as one might hope.
(This is where the gasps came in, if anyone out there was curious…)
In the aftermath of the incident, Furball is seized by the police, and thus begins a very suburban war between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Mores’ (the impressive tracking shot of Feng’s massive home and his son’s fancy camera drone indicate that this is less a case of David vs. Goliath than Goliath Vs. A Somewhat Bigger Goliath). Feng’s cynical wife Liangliang and equally cynical mother-in-law seem to be angling for a big payday; his father-in-law is advising him to let the whole thing go and chalk it up to life experience. But Feng is a man of principle, and while his unwavering belief that the most important thing is a acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a sincere apology make others take him for a fool or a coward, his resolve might prove far stronger, and far more troubling than anyone can possibly imagine…
What succeeds best in Push and Shove is Wu Nan’s deeply impressive control of tone; getting the audience back on your side after luring them in with the playful antics of a cute puppy and then forcing the audience to watch as that same cute puppy gets brutally and bloodily mauled would seem a Herculean task. But within moments of violating one of the most sacred unspoken rules of cinema (never hurt cute animals), Nan not only has us back on her side, she has us laughing ourselves sick.
And in this, the movie displays its intimate knowledge of human nature; laughter mingles messily with despair, and the most hilarious moments can follow quickly on the heels of the darkest. That it’s a conflict over house pets might sound absurd on the surface, but Push and Shove is grounded in a way that the audience has no choice but to take everyone’s feelings and reactions seriously. They can be silly, but they can never be anything less than human.
Even Feng’s occupation as a screenwriter, which is almost always a source for dire meta commentary whenever its portrayed onscreen, manages to work itself into the story in a surprisingly restrained manner. It’s not exactly subtle stuff, but it’s all handled with a light touch, which makes it go down far smoother than it otherwise might.
While an extended slapstick sequence where Feng sneaks into the Wei household to retrieve his son’s drone is clearly the set piece designed to bring down the house, for me personally the highlight of the film, and the moment when I had to acknowledge that we were dealing with a singular talent in Wu Nan, was the scene in which Feng and Liangliang’s argument over how to handle the Furball situation was interrupted by their app telling them it’s time to make a baby. In the space of only two or three minutes, the couple go from bitter acrimony to playful seduction to tearful realizations of human fragility. It was a brief interlude, but the deftness with which Nan handled the shifts in mood and made it feel intimate and honest in a way that movies often struggle to capture.
In the post film Q&A, Nan revealed that this story was in fact based on an actual event from her recent past, so in a way it’s no surprise how real and true everything here feels. Push and Shove is a film that could have gone in a much cruder, much more manipulative manner, and chooses instead to find the beautiful, miserable, silly, noble, overall contradictory humanity in every last moment. It’s the kind of movie you always hope to find at a film festival, and with any luck more audiences will get the chance to experience it, too.