Friday, May 07, 2021

Chinese Double Feature: Home Sweet Home and Cliff Walker

So, this is the double feature that gets me to add "dumb 'crime does not pay' epilogues" to the tags. It's a particularly goofy pair:


… one where I nearly yelled out "come on, of all people, she's the one where you make sure that the audience knows she spent some time in jail? That was a completely justified stabbing!" in the theater, and one "some time later, the bad guy in a war movie gets garotted because there must be justice rather than chaos". It's gratuitous in both cases, and almost undercuts the purpose, vindictive as much as just.


It's kind of a bummer that it took me a while to get the write-up on Sunday's double feature done, because it was long enough for Home Sweet Home to leave Boston Common after just a week. I initially liked it more than Cliff Walkers, but what can you do; Zhang Yimou is a bigger name than Chen Leste, to the point where he's not just bringing in the Chinese-language audience. Cliff Walkers actually had a pretty good crowd for the pandemic, and I wasn't even the only non-Asian person there.

On the other hand, having a couple days to let the movies turn over in my head did lead me to like them a bit more. They're both kind of messy in certain ways, but I'm not entirely sure that Zhang wasn't doing that on purpose. Chen's movie may have big structural problems, but I've been seeing people talk lately about folks not being able to properly mourn for a while, and even beyond that, there's something maybe a little subversive about the way it plays with how the pressure to be part of a traditional nuclear family can be toxic. As Harris Dang said on Twitter, the last act is Twists Ahoy, but it's not like they're entirely twists for the sake of jolts - they reveal what the movie is about, to the point where I wish they'd happened earlier so it could spend some more time being about that, so to speak.

Finally, in the "only a problem for film writers" category, the director, star, and main character of Cliff Walkers all have the surname "Zhang", and while I get the impression that it's not uncommon to refer to people by their full three-syllable name in Chinese dialects, it sounds kind of weird in English! Hopefully I didn't have to contort too much to make it work.

Mi Mi Fang Ke (Home Sweet Home)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 May 2021 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

The sheer amount of "wait, what?" at the back end of Home Sweet Home isn't quite enough to fritter away all the nasty vibes and tension it starts with, but there's a short stretch where it seems to be trying its best. It winds up a case of twist overload, a movie whose makers don't seem to recognize that what's going on up front is far more exciting and resonant than what's hiding behind it as they pull the rug out from under the audience.

After opening in the immediate aftermath of a horrific school bus accident, it soon jumps several years forward, with the bus's driver Yu Kunqiao (Duan Yihong) having spent the intervening time hiding in the basement of the Wang family, barely able to remember the incident thanks to his own head injury and afraid to face China's harsh punishment for his part in an incident that left so many school children dead. Even without harboring a fugitive, the family seems increasingly frayed: Wealthy Mr. Wang (Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing) is controlling, Mrs. Kwok (Tiffany Hsu Wei-Ning) wants a divorce, daughter Chutong (Zhang Zifeng) is at an awkward, rebellious age - she prefers sketching and having Kunqiao critique her work over her mandated piano lessons - and son Chuqi (Rong Zishan) still walks with a limp from being the only kid to survive the crash. They are the very image of a picture-perfect life that is about to explode, and Kunqiao apparently isn't the only secret.

Some thrillers like to start out with a seemingly serene status quo, but writer Shu Qiao and director Chen Leste - who recently collaborated on TV series A Murderous Affair in Horizon Tower - opt to start dropping bombs early, and if it looks clear that Kungqiao's fuzzy memories of the accident are awful convenient for Mr. Wang (and probably a greater reason for the lack of a TV in the house than his desire to keep the kids focused on their education), that's fine. A Chinese thriller is seldom going to turn on whether or not someone gets away with a crime, and the audience knows that, but the inevitability of the end lets the filmmakers take a perverse glee in surveying the rot. Mrs. Wang prepares beautiful dinners that nobody ever seems to actually enjoy, the scene of her skinning a duck as much a reminder of how riches come through ruthlessness as the disturbing photograph above the piano Chutong plays. The kids are more sympathetic than the adults, but not exempt, often lashing out with their own sort of cruelty. It's a portrait of a tremendously unhappy family that will fight any member's attempt to ease their own misery.

Not having to keep their resentments hidden often pays dividends for the impressive cast. Consider Aaron Kwok as the patriarch of this messed-up family, giving a skin-crawling performance that doesn't really need a lot of nuance, but which is all the more enjoyable for how readily one can hiss even as one can occasionally see where Mr. Wang is coming from. It's just one of several that let the audience savor their messed-up but kind of consistent values, with Tiffany Hsu especially doing entertaining work as someone who comes off as shallow and materialistic but isn't exactly unsympathetic at any point. What's perhaps surprising is how thoroughly Zhang Zifeng winds up taking the film's center as Chutong even though the story is built around Duan Yihong's Kunqiao; though natural parallels in breeding to escape this toxic environment, it weighs a bit more heavily on Chutong, who doesn't have an easy feeling if guilt to fall back on so much as the growing unease at what she's part of. It's potentially a lot to drop on a young actress, but Zhang is more than up for it, giving a performance that works with the story but always seems real, rather than one thing hiding another, which makes sense for the character.

That qualifier gets at what makes the movie frustrating, though: For the most part, this movie is far more fun to just watch in the moment than to look back at, reconsidering with more information. Wang's plan is complex to the point where revealing it takes much more effort than just pulling back a curtain, and it's a major stumbling block. Maybe if the powder keg had gone off earlier, the second half would be more fun, but instead it's just a ton of people saying what really went on. It doesn't exactly throw away the rest of the movie, but does make it into a little more work and a little less grand melodrama when it feels like things should be going the other way.

That said, the ideas behind it are good enough to turn over in one's brain even if there's some immediate discontent coming out of the theater. It's not a perfect thriller or one that lives up to its early potential, but it lingers a bit and works enough in the moment for a watch.

Also at eFilmCritic

Xuan ya zhi shang (Cliff Walkers aka Impasse)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 May 2021 in AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run, DCP)

Cliff Walkers at times feels less like a movie and more like a TV series that has gone on a year too long, to the point where it has needed to switch in new cast members for departing stars, given audience favorites in small roles more to do, and kind of lost the main plot, all in just over two hours. That it's not actually stretched over two years keeps it from truly being a drag, at least, especially since filmmaker Zhang Yimou seldom puts in less than a full effort, even when you suspect he's doing a movie to get back in the good graces of the powers that be after doing something a little too controversial, to the point where it's easy to second-guess any disappointment.

Here, he parachutes the audience and his characters into 1930s Manchukuo, a puppet state in Northeastern China controlled by Japan. Their goal: To reach Harbin and extract Wang Ziyang, the only survivor of a prison-camp purge. The team: Zhang Xianchen (Zhang Yi), a former reporter and their leader; Yu Wang (Qin Hailu), his wife, like him as concerned with the children they left behind when they fled Harbin years ago as the mission; Chuliang (Zhu Yawen), a loyal soldier; and Xioalan (Liu Haocun), young and inexperienced but with a gift for cryptology. Zhang wisely splits them into teams of two - him and XIaolan on one with Yu and Chuliang on the other - only for both to wander into traps that Section Chief Gao Bin (Ni Dahong) has set after getting wind of their arrival from a traitor. Even if the team sees that their supposed allies (Yu Hewei, Yu Ailei, Zhou Xiaofan) are fakes, can they extricate themselves before Gao decides there's no point in keeping them alive?

Gao Bin is far enough ahead of Zhang at the start that the stated mission that it would be easy to forget what Zhang's team is there for if someone didn't occasionally mention it in conversation, and it's occasionally frustrating, especially if one bought a ticket looking for a straightforward bit of action. Co-writer-/director Zhang Yimou seems to get caught up in details and side tracks, although a clear alternate purpose eventually resolves: The film is an exploration of just how stressful and potentially deadly the paranoid head game that being a spy entails. There's a fair stretch of the film where one expects some sort of mini-resolution so that everyone can move on to Step 2 or Plan B, but instead things keep getting even messier and more hurry-up-and-wait, but there's at least enough intrigue to keep it going.

It becomes a bit unbalanced; the apparent core four are so out of their depth and closely-watched that there aren't a lot of chances to really impress - Qin Hailu and Zhu Yawen, in particular, have to be so stone-faced that they don't even get much chance to do fun things at the corners, and the split of the teams keeps the two halves of the film's couples apart. There's more interest to be found in the pairing of Zhang Yi and Liu Haocun as the most and least experienced in the group, Zhang's uncertainty that Xiaolan is up for what needs to be done isn't quite upended by how sharp the sweet girl can be, but I suspect many would like to see a version of the film that centers Xiaolan more, and not just because Liu looks to be the latest in a series of Zhang Yimou muses that includes Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, already filming her third collaboration with the director. On the other side, Ni Dahong gives the sort of performance as the villain that makes one wonder how easily a smart, capable person can fall into that role, and has a nice group around him, though I wouldn't dare spoil which of Yu Hewei, Zhou Xiaofan, and Yu Ailei are playing competent, hapless, and treacherous.

And, as per usual with Zhang Yimou, the film is gorgeous, not quite so stylized as Shadow but still having a lot of fun putting dark clothes on snowy landscapes, giving people cool hats to cut a sharper silhouette, and throwing 1930s neon in for some variety. The action is staged right as well, messy and with no middle ground between quick and lingering ugliness, even when everything hits a climax and the set-pieces get bigger. Gunshots are deafening and headlights blindingly bright, accentuating both danger and what revolutionaries must become to face it.

It doesn't quite peter out, but it's eventually swallowed up by its machinations, not quite the twisty thriller it's sold as or truly exciting when one realizes it's something else. Still, it's hard not to give a filmmaker as accomplished as Zhang Yimou the benefit of the doubt; he spends enough moments pointedly noting poison pills that one wonders if that's what he's figuratively giving people here: Cliff Walkers looks like a story of heroic Communist agents on a mission, but becomes a story of the stress and self-destruction of living in even a gilded surveillance state - and the fact that it's hard to know how willing the director is to bite the hand that feeds him at this stage of his career doesn't exactly work against that reading.

Also at eFilmCritic

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