NYAFF 2023 Review: The Empty Nest


There’s a growing concern in China about its elderly population living isolated lives due to mass urbanization. This cultural shift is due to the demanding work culture in the country and the lack of opportunities to break out from poverty. This trend is creating a huge dilemma over how these people will take care of themselves, not to mention it’s having a knock-on effect of forcing families apart and causing the elderly to fall victim to scams, etc.

That’s what the film The Empty Nest is attempting to highlight. Set in the twilight years of a woman’s life as she deals with near-crippling depression and loneliness, director Zhang Wei’s adaptation of a novel by the same name puts a spotlight on the struggles that modern Chinese society is putting on its citizens. How does one pull themselves out of a rut when their families cannot be there? Can one climb out of poverty when their parents have abandoned them due to needing to move for work?

The film doesn’t quite answer all of these quandaries, but it does craft a poignant and touching story about loss, sacrifice, and redemption.

空巢片宣 / THE EMPTY NEST (Trailer)

The Empty Nest
Director: Zhang Wei
Release Date: May 10, 2020 (China), July 23, 2023 (NYAFF)
Country: China

Clocking in at only 82 minutes, The Empty Nest surprisingly spends nearly an eighth of its run time, in the beginning, focusing on the intense loneliness that its protagonist faces. An elderly woman named Zhao Yimei (Zhu Xijuan) lives alone in Shenzhen, China in a state of depression. Beginning with a shot of her counting sleeping pills to potentially take her own life and focusing on her internal conflicts while sitting in her bathroom, she eventually reconsiders this course of action when a nosey salesman named Lei Xiaodong (Zhang Youhao) knocks at her door. Over the course of a few days, she relents to his nagging and invites him into her home.

While neighbors in her apartment complex warn Zhao that this guy is a scammer, she doesn’t care. After Lei helps repair a broken window caused by a rather violent thunderstorm, Zhao begins to grow attached to him for the kindness he has shown her. While he peddles some rather dubious healthcare products to her, Zhao is content to pay the man to simply spend time with her. He has become the bright spot in her life that was missing for so long.

Obviously, things take a turn and The Empty Nest begins to tackle themes of trust, betrayal, and living in the moment, but the journey there is filled with lots of heartwarming moments and genuine joy. We get to see Zhao open up about her past struggles and explain how her fractured relationship with her son has caused tremendous damage to her mental well-being. Lei also explains how he was abandoned by his mother after his father suffered a fatal accident, forcing him to grow up without much guidance.

The Empty Nest


As I mentioned in the introduction, The Empty Nest deals with the cultural phenomenon of empty nest syndrome. While it is specifically focused on the Chinese equivalent of it, every nation has a similar sensation. Whether it be an elderly couple dealing with their children having left or our progress deeper into the digital age making genuine human connection harder to achieve, we as a global society are suffering an unprecedented amount of isolation thanks to our modern lives.

The film doesn’t name a reason for why this has happened as it should be apparent to anyone watching. Urbanization is one of the main reasons why this issue is occurring in China, but capitalism is also to blame. As inflation gets out of control around the world, people have been forced to move farther and farther apart from each other just to make ends meet. When you can’t even have a face-to-face conversation with your family or friends, life starts to feel like it’s not worth living.

What The Empty Nest reminds audiences is that we can overcome the pressures and pratfalls of modern society. Even though Lei isn’t being completely honest with Zhao, she has found someone to share her time with and it gives her meaning. Her kindness and honesty even help Lei come to terms with the shadiness of his business, though I won’t say more for fear of giving away the entire plot.


It’s all rather touching, but the biggest knock against the movie is that it often feels like things are at a standstill. Created on a limited budget and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Empty Nest is a very economical film. Roughly 99% of the film takes place in Zhao’s apartment and the various rooms of it. While there are a couple of side characters that Zhao interacts with, she almost exclusively talks to only Lei and her son, who is only ever heard and not seen. It creates this sensation of things blending together where you’re not quite sure how much time has passed.

I can understand the motivation for this and have even suffered similar periods of depression in my own life, but some background details about these characters told through flashbacks would have gone a long way. We do get a glimpse of this within the final 10 minutes, but it still doesn’t go quite far enough. A lot of the details are left for the audience to interpret or expand on, meaning you never receive answers for how Zhao got into this predicament in the first place.

Realistically, though, The Empty Nest isn’t trying to be an expansive and heavily detailed movie. Everyday life doesn’t always make sense nor have a concise backstory. When you’re embroiled in the miasma of depression, even seconds can feel like decades. For Zhang Wei to tap into this for the direction of the film marries the story’s themes with its visuals. It might not be an approach that everyone will appreciate, but it certainly is effective.


The acting, as well, conveys all of this beautifully. Zhu Xijuan is a veteran actor with over 60 years of experience under her belt and she expertly captures the dreariness that a sadness-stricken life can wreak on someone. Zhang Youhao is also very charismatic and sometimes looks like a young Tony Leung with his expressive face. His ultimate destiny is sold completely by the shock and guilt he conveys with just his eyes. Were it not for their skills, this film wouldn’t work.

Thankfully, it does and the often-protracted trek through this film feels like it is worth the journey. While there aren’t many answers for how we can fix our loneliness or what China needs to do to take care of its elderly, The Empty Nest tells viewers that life isn’t simply a den of misery. There are beautiful things to do in this world, we just have to open our hearts to others to let our sadness begin to dissipate.




The Empty Nest is a heartwarming tale of loneliness, betrayal, and redemption that can often feel a bit slow to get going.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.