The concept of this film was irresistible from the start--Zhang Yang asks Chinese actor Hongshen Jia to film his own life, especially his experience with heroin addiction, but without any actors--done purely with the help of his actual friends and family (as the back of the DVD release says, "down to the mental asylum inmates!"). This sounds like a cheap shot, like something that will end up looking amateurish, ridiculous and exploitative, but perhaps it was deliberate that Yang chose an actor who had some recognition in his home country rather than a random "nobody" to do this, so that it would be an intrusion that is expected anyway. Additionally, Hongshen's addiction is not shown in gory detail to make this a "message" movie about how bad drugs are, or to shock, disturb or horrify the audience about drug use. In point of fact, beyond a few joints, no drug use is even shown. It's not even spoken of in explicit terms by and large. We just see the effects on Hongshen himself, and on his parents and sister.
Hongshen is a fresh-faced young actor in Chinese cinema, making his way through a handful of fairly high-profile (apparently) films before disappearing completely from the public radar--leaving behind perceptions of lost talent, an empty and talentless face that has disappeared, and questions as to who the unseen interviewer (assumed and alluded to be Yang) is even asking about when we're first introduced to Hongshen's position in his own society at large. Soon, though, it becomes a fairly frank and honest (insofar as one can really tell) recollection of Hongshen's life, abusive, introverted, troubled, depressed, filled with a desperate search for meaning, art and use in his own life, twisted and contorted by drug use that makes him seek and crave something more than he feels he is genetically or socially capable of, and pushed into arenas he is not naturally adept at.
It's touching the way his family attempts to intervene, but we can see Hongshen's frustration with their "country" ways (Chinese film is rapidly teaching me this classism is, or was, a very large issue there) as being not totally unfair--they really don't understand the world he has brought himself into, but we can see how hard they are trying, and how easy it is for them to make mistakes with Hongshen when he has been made this volatile by his dissatisfaction and the chemical intrusion that enhances it. Sometimes we can see him trying and even succeeding at attempts to appreciate his family's efforts, and sometimes we can see why he perhaps even should be annoyed with they way they're handling things, but no one is ever portrayed as faultless victim or victimizer to blame for the woes of all.
It's a shock when Yang begins to show us the stage set-ups of the film (which began as a stageplay) but makes sense, breaking that fourth wall (which we can of course see was never present when we pull back through it on the set to see the cross section of the apartment we previously accepted as "real" in the film context. We see that this is only a portrayal of events, thankfully something shown to us most explicitly when Hongshen finally crosses the line from troublesome, aggravating and difficult into abusive.
An absolutely fascinating film that manages to take what appears to be a gimmick and makes it into something important, fascinating and artful.