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'Our Lady of the Chinese Shop' Review: A Vibrant Allegory or Haunting Reality?

In his feature debut, Ery Claver appears determined to provide his audience with a window into the streets, homes, and complex politics of Luanda, supplying the audience a glimpse of reality within a story all about imagination and hope. Our Lady of The Chinese Shop is undoubtedly an allegorical film about colonialism, full of contrasts and contradictions which mirror Luanda’s own conflicts with its past. It combines vibrancy with silence, desolation with dreams, and resentment and pain with prayer.

The film engages with a few of the lives in Luanda who all have one thing in common other than the intriguing yet seemingly lonely city they inhabit: their encounter with a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary. The plastic figure, who is put up for sale by a Chinese merchant/ shop owner, seems to affect those who are in its presence: a grieving mother, Domingas (Claudia Pukuta), with a mysterious leak in her roof, a boy, Zoyo (Willi Ribeiro), who searches the streets for his missing dog, and a barber, Pelle, who consumes the ‘power’ of the statue to create his own religious cult.

Through a vibrant, almost artistic lens, Claver successfully captures the poverty that consumes a lot of the city – the shop’s harsh neon-purple lighting has become ingrained in my mind - an interesting setting for the character’s everlasting faith which the shop owner takes advantage of. However, the film also feels documentary-like[NHBJ7] at times, due to the realism of the camera movements - I seemed to be a mere spectator to the character’s everyday tasks and problems. I found that Claver’s determination to explore how far film can engage with reality was truly striking and unbelievable for his first feature.

Credit: Noise Film & TV

For those who are fans of fast-paced action and adventures, I would not recommend Our Lady of The Chinese Shop. However, the obscure plots and lack of dialogue are often replaced by the beautiful poetic narration of the Chinese shop owner who, like me as the audience, mostly plays the role of the observer. His narration aids us in following many of the characters' stories as well as revealing hidden complexities to the character’s pain. The film is also divided into subtitled chapters which adds to the sense of reality turning into fable, despite the slightly messy plot.

The prologue, which is placed between chapters 2 and 3 as a flashback sequence, in some ways felt mismatched from the rest of the film and was slightly confusing. As if the film had abandoned its main religious theme, we see a political elite giving a speech in front of a silent audience of tied-up clothing – an almost comical segment. However, I thought the image of the Chinese shop owner overlooking the congregation encompassed a lot of the film’s intended allegory for China’s unescapable power and influence over Luanda.

Credit: Noise Film & TV

Despite the actors being largely unknown and the lack of interaction throughout the film, they give authentic and intense performances within their individual storylines. Pukuta in particular was a standout performance, portraying a wife who battles with the heartbreak of losing her daughter and the resentment from caring for her husband. She alters between emotions effortlessly and often blurs the line between the two states, resulting in a powerful and destructive display of pain. Furthermore, Ribeiro’s performance is able to bring a lot of depth to the movie despite his limited storyline. His character is vital to creating the unexpectedly volatile but somehow cathartic ending.[NHBJ13]

Our Lady of The Chinese Shop is a beautiful example of spirited visual storytelling. The mixture of styles and plotlines sometimes felt disorganized as I tried to grapple with the overall allegory, nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the absorption into a city I was previously unfamiliar with. I would recommend letting go of trying to identify any hidden metaphors and simply appreciating becoming immersed in this amalgamation of culture, colour, and postcolonial struggle.

Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Film Editor


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