At the surface, Tian Xie’s “Promise” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” seem similar. Both films depict a child’s relationship with a pig, and both of these human-porcine bonds are threatened by powerful outside forces. But on closer look, “Promise” highlights something much more serious and complex: the harsh realities of poverty and abandonment.
“Promise”–one of 12 finalists in TheWrap’s 2017 ShortList Film Festival, presented with support from IMAX–follows a young boy in China’s rural Yunnan province. The boy’s parents leave him to fend for himself while they go to the city to look for work, but they promise to come back for him at New Years. During their absence, the boy befriends a stray piglet.
Just like the super-pig in “Okja,” and Mija, the girl who raises her, this boy and his piglet share a special bond. Here is a child who is utterly alone, and this pig is his only source of companionship and comfort.
Filmmaker Xie told TheWrap during a recent interview that one of the challenges he faced was conveying the unconventional friendship between a boy and a pig. “In my experience, there is more friendship between man and dog,” he said. “Pig and human friendship I did not find [by] my side.” In rural Chinese villages, like the one in which the boy lives, “almost every family raise a lot of pigs,” according to Xie, because pigs are an important source of meat. This is what makes the end of the film so heartbreaking.
When the time comes for the boy’s parents to return, he decides to cook a special dinner for them. But he can’t put together anything substantial with his meager resources, which results in a tough decision: to sell the pig for slaughter to make a nice meal for his parents.
Though some of the circumstances are similar, “Promise” and “Okja” are very different films. Xie says the most important distinction is that his film is a depiction of reality, the reality of China’s rural population, of which the boy and the pig are a reflection. “Pig is the most popular animal in China. I think of writing a pig and a child’s story to be more real and interesting,” Xie explained.
Watch “Promise” above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote from Aug. 8-22. Presented with support from IMAX.