Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Chinese Crime: My Dear Liar & Better Days

I've said it before, but I'm kind of tired of writing about how "crime does not pay" makes for lousy movies, not so much because that end is bad in and of itself, but because you can often see how the writers have to twist in order to satisfy those demands. At best, you get something like The Wild Goose Lake, where the filmmakers figure out a way to draw suspense from something other than whether or not the wrongdoers will be captured or killed; at worst, you get epilogues which have that justice administered out of nowhere. More often, you get something like My Dear Liar where the whole last act of the movie has odd pressures on it, and it never feels quite natural.

I wonder if other folks were a bit thrown by some of the camgirl stuff, like the virtual yachts, which I'd only heard of from People's Republic of Desire, a documentary I saw at Fantasia last year.

Reserving seats on my phone, it appears there were excursions planned to My Dear Liar on Sunday, as there were a couple "Almost Full" signs, but it was just me and maybe a couple other people Saturday morning. On the other hand, not only did Boston Common keep putting on more shows, but it also opened at the Seaport, which was a bit of an easier ticket to get at short notice. No idea whether they'll be starting to pick these movies up as well, but there was a fair crowd there for one of their first times booking these - I think they got Ne Zha, also a Well Go release, a few weeks back, and it makes sense that they might pick up the things that were already hits.

Sadly, it looks like those two movies coming out last week and another this weekend means that Chasing Dream isn't hitting North America alongside its Chinese release, which is a bummer, because that's new Johnnie To movie, and we've had the last few of those. No dice, but I am glad Derek Tsang's latest was able to get out of censorship limbo.

Shou yi ren (My Dear Liar)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2019 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

My Dear Liar involves a fairly dumb master plan and I don't think the people making this movie thought it through much better than its scheming characters did. It's the sort of film that makes murder just something that happens during insurance fraud and never lets itself enjoy the pleasures of a good con, always far too well aware that what these characters are doing is deceptive and/or illegal, so much so that it can't separate the thrill of a small-time grift with the horror of a large one. And if that's the case, why bother?

As it opens, longtime friends Zhong Zenjiang (Zhang Zixian) and Wu Hai ("Da Peng" Dong Chengpeng) are both feeling a monetary squeeze and resorting to scams, although the scales are different: Zhong and his boss have been embezzling money from their real estate firm and feel investigators closing in, while perpetually-broke "Da Hai" is hustling as a designated-driver-for-hire at night after managing an internet café to pay for his son Yoyo's asthma medicine. He'd love to move into one of the apartments Zhong's firm is developing in a nice, pollution-free area, and Zhong says he'll transfer one if Da Hai carries out his plan - marry camgirl Yue Miaomiao (Ada Liu Yan), take out a large insurance policy, and then collect when she accidentally drowns. This plan, of course, leaves out a lot of details about how to get Miaomiao into position, even before considering that Miaomiao may be a little more than her "Foxy Fairy" character.

I expected more of a comedy based on the previous films from the people involved, true, but even considering that this is a more serious movie than that, it feels lacking. It starts with Zhong able to consider murder as part of an insurance scam and Da Hai more than a bit uncomfortable with the idea, but never does much with just how mismatched they are. There are numerous scenes highlighting the toxicity of this friendship, but there's not enough of Zhong overall or the two of them outside this scheme to see why Da Hai would do this for him. Maybe it's something cultural that I as an outsider wouldn't understand, but even in that case, it seems like it could use some detail - there's a chance to twist the knife hard on how decent air quality is being sold as a luxury good, or how the money Zhong is spending on this scheme contrasts with how broke Da Hai is.

Similarly, filmmaker Shen Ao often doesn't seem to know what to do with Miaomiao as the movie goes on. There's a line early on about how Zhong sees her as a sort of fraud and a leech, which is part of how he justifies murdering her to Da Hai, but Shen barely takes advantage of this to make her savvier than the guys expect despite her seemingly airheaded, materialistic presentation. Instead, there's one scene in the middle of the movie that confronts her with how bad she has been and lets her transition to a more easily sympathetic version of the character that one can more readily see Da Hai falling for. It's flagrantly transparent, especially since Liu Yan seems perfectly capable of handling the contradictions and nuances in her character without having this sort of redirection.

The cast is generally good all around, even if their material isn't quite so good as they are. The film has moments that are tremendously impressive, like an early chase as Da Hai tries to retrieve Yoyo's medicine from a restaurant where he's been swiping from the buffet, when it feels nimble and has Da Hai's personality reflected in the way he goes about his business. Shen handles those bits of movement and the like with skill, enough that when the characters talk about a scheme, there's anticipation in how it may play out, right down to the ultimate attempt to knock Miaomiao off. The moments when the film shows some teeth - Zhong showing a reckless, sadistic side, or the commodification of just breathing - are good enough to keep reignite one's interest, for a time.

It seldom lasts. The characters never really shift position from where they start, and the ending therefore seems inevitable on top of heavy-handed. The end titles seem to quantify guilt in too pat a fashion, and middle steps that seem like they should be a big deal are glossed over. It's a film that should be much sharper or more freewheeling than it ever is, to the point where one wonders why Shen would tell this story if only to tell such a muted take on it.

Full review on EFilmCritic (dead link)

Shao nian de ni (Better Days)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2019 in Showplace Icon the Seaport #5 (first-run, DCP laser)

You can tell when a film and filmmaker are just better than their peers, as was the case with Derek Tsang's previous film SoulMate, the best in a wave of seemingly dozens of Chinese movies about people looking back on their high school years. That's a description that could technically apply to Better Days, especially with the bookends made to satisfy the censors, although it's a far harsher film than those, but effectively so: Tsang brings something visceral to his story of bullying and revenge where all too many might be satisfied to make it easier for the squeamish to grapple with.

It's 60 days until "gaokao", the two-day college admissions test that can determine the direction of a young person's life, and Chen Nian (Zhou Dongyu) is under as much stress as any of her peers at an Anquiao City cram school, if not more - her mother Zhou Lei (Wu Yue) is deep in debt and often away trying to sell knock-off cosmetics in a larger city and she is relentlessly bullied, primarily by a trio of girls led by Wei Lai (Zhou Ye). She's understandably turned inward but she's a good kid - when a classmate in similar position commits suicide, she's the one that steps forward to cover the body and talks to Detective Zheng Yi (Yin Fang), and when she sees a boy beaten up on her way home, she pulls out her phone to call the police. They're on her before anyone can come, but Xiao Bei (Jackson Yee YangQianXi) is grateful, and starts looking out for her.

And the bulk of it is pretty darn great, with Zhou Dongyu and Jackson Yee great at essaying these kids who had been failed by adults finding something in each other without making it nicer than it should be. Tsang and the stars very deliberately don't make their romance something beautiful amidst the ugliness of their lives, but instead something that often just barely peeks out of their wariness. They capture how this extreme vulnerability can lead to hardening and closing off, with Zhou especially spending much of her time in the sort of tense posture that lets the audience feel how much she's holding back because she recognizes that letting something out will only create more trouble, but still communicating a lot without using many words.

Not that she has to; Tsang is admirably unflinching in his portrayal of bullying, not shrinking from the violence but also making sure to twist the knife during the abusive scenes that outsiders often label as "pranks. He's careful not to leave a crack for dismissal or rationalization to get in, as often happens; there are no scenes of adults saying it builds character or even the implication that surviving this makes Chen Nian stronger. Indeed, it's impressive how there's nothing celebratory or maudlin about her suffering - this does not make her a better person or signify her goodness; it's just awful and pointless. Tsang is careful to make sure that the film never quite reaches the point where the audience feels that experiencing it vicariously is also just piling-on, maybe softening things a bit where he can - he's careful not to show Hu Xiaodie clearly after she kills herself, focusing on shocked onlookers, and the neighborhood becomes less dangerous and more cozy once Chen Nian and Bai have met.

The movie eventually starts to flounder as the filmmakers seemingly work hard on arriving at the perfect, proper ending - something closer to the forefront of one's mind because we're seeing it now, rather than several months ago, with the government both cancelling and approving its release on short notice and with some changes. There's also arguably one twist too many, but even in that extended last act, there's something to see, as the idealistic young detective realizes just what a morass these crimes can be; Yin Fang is quietly impressive as a detective allowed to be both uncertain and maybe misguided in his certainty. It's a neat bit of work that keeps a viewer who was invested in what came before from groaning too much that the story is over, so let it end.

There may be a better version of "Better Days" to be found in its raw footage, or maybe not. This one has become a fair-sized hit in China and deserves to be; like Tsang's previous film, it's made with a level of skill that you don't always see in these mainstream imports. Even when it stumbles a bit, it's impressively intense and avoids hand-wringing.

Full review on EFilmCritic (dead link)

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