May 3, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Xu Ang
Mandarin with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in China, the dramatic film “Hachiko” (based on a true story) features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A college professor convinces his wife to let their family keep a stray Akita puppy that he found, and the puppy grows up to be a very loyal companion, even after tragedy strikes the family.
Culture Audience: “Hachiko” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching heartwarming stories (with some tearjerking moments) about family pets.
“Hachiko” is a worthy remake of the original film of the same name. This drama about a loyal family dog has some dull moments, but the movie has good performances. The tone is sentimental without overloading on schmaltz. Because the movie is based on a true story, many people might already know how this story is going to end. That doesn’t make watching the movie any less emotionally poignant.
Directed by Xu Ang, “Hachiko” makes some changes to the real story, as well as to previous movie versions of this true story. Xu co-wrote the “Hachiko” screenplay with Zhang Hansi, Li Liangwen and Li Lin. The movie is based on a true story of a male Akita dog named Hachikō, who lived in Japan, from November 1923 to March 1935. Hachikō showed unusual loyalty to his closest companion: a Tokyo-based college professor named Hidesaburō Ueno, who adopted Hachikō from a farm when Hachikō was a puppy.
This story has been made into several movies, beginning with the 1925 Japanese film “Hachikō.” The most famous and most commercially successful movie about this story is the 1987 drama “Hachikō Monogatari,” which was Japan’s biggest hit film of the year. An American movie version of the story, titled “Hachi: A Dog’s Story,” starring Richard Gere, was released in 2009.
The 2023 “Hachiko” movie is the Chinese version of the story. The movie takes place over a 15-year period. The dog is still an Akita, but the entire movie takes place in early 21st century China, not in the 1920s or 1930s.
The name of the dog in “Hachiko” is actually not Hachiko but is BaTong. That’s because in real life, Hachiko (which means “eighth prince” in Japanese) was the eighth puppy born in his litter. In the Chinese “Hachiko” movie, the dog is not adopted from a farm but is found as a stray puppy in a rural area. The professor who finds the dog and keeps him has no idea what the background information is for this puppy.
In the beginning of “Hachiko,” Chen Jingxiu (played by Feng Xioagang) is a mild-mannered professor who is living a comfortable but dull and stagnant life. The main disruption to his peace is when his cranky homemaker wife Li Jiazhen (played by Joan Chen) nags Jingxiu about the fact that he could be making more money if he had the talent and ambition to become a tenured professor. Jingxiu has been an associate professor for years without getting a job promotion.
Jingxiu and Jiazhen have two children—a son (played by Yang Bo) and a daughter (played by Eponine Huang)—who are teenagers at the beginning of the story and are in their 30s by the end of the story. Jiazhen spends a lot of time play mah jong with her female friends. And because Jiazhen gets irritated easily, she often says, “So annoying,” when she doesn’t like something.
The movie’s opening scene shows Jiazhen and her two children going back to visit the house that they lived in for years before moving away, for a reason explained later in the movie. The house is now abandoned and in a state of disrepair. This visit leads to Jiazhen to reminice about the years that she and her family lived there, beginning 15 years earlier. Most of the “Hachiko” is a flashback to those years.
During this flashback part of the movie, it shows early on how BaTong came into Jingxiu’s life. He and six or seven colleagues are riding on a private bus together, because they’re attending an event. The bus is going though a rural area in Yunyang County, China, when it gets stuck in the mud.
The passengers disembark from the bus to help the driver get the bus un-stuck. When all of a sudden, they see a 3-month-old Akita puppy underneath the bus. Jingxiu is immediately charmed by this frightened puppy. He picks up the dog and comforts the dog.
While the others are tending to the bus, Jingxiu walks around in the area to ask people in nearby houses if they know anything who might own this puppy. No one he asks knows anything about the dog, so Jingxiu decides to keep the dog, even though he knows that his wife Jiazhen doesn’t like dogs. He decides to name the puppy BaTong.
Jiazhen is predictably upset at the sight of the dog. She has a fear of dogs, ever since she was bitten by a dog when she was a child. Before she and Jingxiu got married, she made him promise that they would never have a dog in their household. Jingxiu tells her that he’s only going to keep this stray dog temporarily until he can find a permanent home for this adorable pup.
Jingxiu goes through the motions of putting up flyers around town to solicit adoption of the puppy. But he rejects people who answer the ads, for various reasons. Of course, we all know that Jingxiu doesn’t really want to give away this dog, and he ends up keeping it. Jingxiu becomes very attached to BaTong, by treating the dog as his best friend. Eventually, Jiazhen warms up to the dog and considers BaTong to be a member of the family too.
“Hachiko” shows that it isn’t all smooth sailing for Jingxiu and BaTong. When BaTong is a puppy and small enough to hide in a backpack, Jingxiu secretly brings the dog to work (he keeps the dog in his office), even though it’s against the campus policy for pet dogs to be the work offices.
BaTong’s presence on the campus isn’t a secret for long: One day, the escapes through an open office door while Jingxiu is teaching in a classroom. And you can easily predict the rest. Jingxiu doesn’t get in a lot of trouble for it, but BaTong is now officially banned from being in any building on the campus.
As BaTong grows up, he has a routine of accompanying Jingxiu to and from work, with BaTong patiently waiting outside in a campus area for his Jingxiu at the end of each day. BaTong has a routine of sitting on the same seat. A newsstand operator (played by Qian Bo) nearby gets to know BaTong and is friendly with the dog. The newsstand operator sometimes feeds treats to BaTong.
Jingxiu’s close bond with Batong comes at a price. It’s later revealed that Jingxiu’s son feels that Jingxiu treats the dog better than Jingxiu treats his own son. After the on graduates from college, there’s a subplot about the son contemplating taking a job as a web designed in Beijing. Jingxiu doesn’t seem very concerned about the son’s decision will be and tells him that the son can make his own decisions.
The son interprets it as Jingxiu not really caring at all, because what the son really wants are for Jingxiu to give him some advice or some indication that the son will be missed if he moves away from home. Surprisingly, the usually prickly Jiazhen is the more nurturing parent in this situation.
“Hachiko” then takes a tragic turn, which won’t be revealed in this review, because some people watching this movie won’t know what happened in real life. It’s enough to say that it’s a bittersweet part of this story about family love and loyalty. The cast members’ performances, as well as directing and screenplay, are perfectly competent but not outstanding. Overall, “Hachiko” is exactly what you might expect from a movie about a beloved family pet and how that family copes with loss and grief.
CMC Pictures released “Hachiko” in select U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023. The movie was released in China on March 31, 2023.