Once widely considered the world’s most beautiful woman, Gong Li gives the performance of a lifetime in her favorite role of Sun Liying, a divorced mother in Beijing struggling to ready her son for school, in Sun Zhou’s warm, deeply affecting Piao liang ma ma—literally, Pretty Mama. Ten-year-old Zheng Da, because deaf, is speech-impaired, and matters go from very bad to worse when his hearing aid becomes a casualty of a fight with taunting schoolboys. How is his mother going to earn the 5,000 yuan needed to replace the hearing aid? She cleans houses (which requires warding off a would-be rapist), delivers newspapers, takes a turn at being an illegal bookseller; she does, or attempts to do, whatever it takes.
     Sun’s superlative film, which took the Hundred Flowers Award as the year’s best and the best Asian film prize at Hawaii, moves at a breakneck pace attuned to urban intensity and to Sun Liying’s overflowing responsibilities before it segues seamlessly, that is, without stylistic or tonal tearing, to a much slower, more compelling pace as Sun Liying gradually heads to the moment when she discards a burdensome martyr-complex and embraces the revelatory fact that her son is the braver of the two of them. Gong charts an amazing, at times agonizing, trajectory of both ordeal and character development. The subtlety, naturalness and quiet, often silent power of Gong’s brilliant acting justify her plethora of best actress prizes: at Montréal, from the Shanghai film critics, the Golden Rooster (the Chinese film industry prize, comparable to the U.S. Oscar), the Golden Phoenix and Hundred Flowers Awards.
     However, everyone contributes a sterling performance, including Gao Xin, the actually deaf youngster who plays Zheng Da, and Shi Jing-ming, who plays a teacher sympathetic to mother and son.

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