[Note: No spoilers]
For most part of Grain in Ear, I was considering walking out of the theatre. I’m glad I didn’t. Until a few minutes before the end, it is painful to watch as director Zhang Lu carefully constructs for us the life of a Korean minorty woman in China, whose husband is in jail for murder, and who is strugging to making ends meet.
Cui, played by Lianji Liu lives with her child in a non-descript building by a railway junction, in a room next to one occupied by a group of prostitutes. She supports herself by selling kimchi, a pickled Korean dish, to factory workers and train drivers. At night, she unsuccessfully attempts to teach her son the Korean alphabet.
One day, Cui�s unregistered food stall gets confiscated. Kim, a factory worker who is also of Korean origin who had earlier attempted to make polite conversation with her helps her. He is a married man with an overbearing wife. He takes her to a bar, and then a karaoke booth where he forces her to drink. One of the prostitutes warns Cui about him as a strictly sexual relationship develops between the two. �The men who come to us,� she says,� are not good men�. The prostitutes are like overgrown kids, playing games among themselves and with Cui’s son during the day, and walking the streets at night. They get bruised and battered regularly, and talk dreamily of the harvest season back home in the village.
Wang, a policeman takes pity on Cui and suggests that she get her food-cart registered. There is a pointless, light moment as the lady in charge of registrations requests Cui to teach her Korean dance, and for a brief moment we see some emotion from Cui as she loses herself in the dance. Dance seems symbolic of the dream world that the inhabitants of this industrial town have lost, and is contrasted with the realities of their difficult existence: In the beginning, as Cui makes her way to the station to give lunch to train drivers, her quiet, almost mechanical existence is contrasted with a group that is practicing for annual festivities. Later, at the end of the movie, as Cui returns from the clinical execution of her murderous plot, the same dance group goes by her.Listlessness pervades Grain in Ear – every character, apart from Cui’s son, is almost like a zombie, quietly accepting the blows that life and men deal them with a sense of �moving-on�. Kim’s wife has Cui arrested as a prostitute, and Wang, the policeman who had earlier helped her, gets drunk and rapes here in the police station. The camera remains outside the room, and as with the sex-scene with Kim, focuses on the door frame and the wall beyond it. In fact, even other scenes, often the camera switches only after the characters have exited the frame, instead of following them.
Tragedy follows tragedy, but Cui takes each blow and moves on. Every time a rat consumes the poison carefully spread across her room, it is replaced by another one. Throughout the film, her son fearlessly picks up the dead rat and deposits it outside while Cui keeps as far away as possible. The final blow justifies the slow pace of the movie: it is quick, emotionless and efficient and makes the wait worth it. Symbolically, she herself picks up the dead rat and throws it out.