Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Recent from China: Full River Red and Post Truth

I wonder, idly, if piracy is less of a concern now than it was when Chinese movies started playing day-and-date in America roughly 12 years ago, because this year's Lunar New Year have been doled out over the past couple months as opposed to all dropping within a week or two. I've always figured that this was in part to avoid piracy, or perhaps to capitalize on expats who were still sort of on China scheduling, as in reading news and getting advertising for what's playing in Beijing rather than in Boston (for example).

Apparently, that's less of a concern now; maybe nobody having a DVD player hooked up means there are fewer bootleg DVDs and thus less need to get ahead of that, while the Great Firewall of China keeps piracy from spreading. Or a lot of folks who would otherwise pirate figure they can find a legit stream somewhere, especially if they don't mind ads (and if you don't mind a bad rip, you maybe don't mind ads). And that's how we wind up getting China Film Bureau entry #2023-002 two months after #2023-001.

And #2022-090 even after that, which was even more of a strange release, because it got an extremely tiny run (one matinee a day) on the weekend Jackie Chan in Ride On was expected to be released, but it seems to be skipping Boston. Not upset about Post Truth showing up - I liked Jian Bing Man and City of Rock, and when I looked up after the movie finished, the theater was pretty darn crowded. It's just odd, especially considering that I tend to presume that part of the reason Mandarin-language films do is that much of the young audience is students form the People's Republic, and they could have seen that on break. Ah, well; these are two pretty entertaining movies. Full River Red is from Zhang Yimou, and I once again find myself wondering if Zhang Yimou has any art house cred left, because this didn't seem to get a whole lot of notice on that front.

Manjianghong (Full River Red)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 Match 2023 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run; DCP)

So, I'm guessing from that title at the end that I was the only person in the theater that didn't know where this twisty mystery movie was eventually going to end up. Not necessarily that the mostly-Chinese audience could predict where Zhang Yimou and company were going with it from moment to moment - this could very well be a legend that leaves a whole lot of room for new materials to be grafted onto it - but a movie with this title set in this period was always going to have the finale it does, with Zhang figuring that his job was to make the route there unpredictable.

He sets the scene at 3 July 1146, with various factions vying for the Emperor's favor, and now a Jin envoy has been murdered during a meeting with Song prime minister Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin). There are no leads until middle-aged soldier Zhang Da (Shen Teng) mentions seeing a secret letter being exchanged. The minister pairs him with ambitious guard Sun Jun (Jackson Yee Xiang Qianxi), who just happens to be Zhang's cousin, and gives them two hours to discover the letter and who murdered the envoy. There's no end of suspects, but also seemingly no end of red herrings and other intrigue going on in the fortress.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about a film that has a great deal of surprises on tap is that, for much of the runtime, it is as much a dark comedy as anything else, with Zhang bringing a Coen Brothers sensibility to the fancy-armor genre as Zhang and Sun stomp their way through passageways with anachronistic music on the soundtrack and an all-access pass in front of them. The pair don't banter, really - there's more of an edge to the insults and begging that one finds in this sort of film than that - but they're each funny and full of themselves in ways guaranteed to piss the other off. It's a buddy cop movie where they can't really become buddies. Zhang and co-writer Chen Yu don't just regularly turn things on a dime, but always make sure that characters are dispatched or made invaluable in jaw-droppingly absurd ways. There is a scene with a bird near the climax that is brilliantly ridiculous even as you see the people involved are dead serious.

Being a Zhang Yimou film, it's gorgeous. If it seems strange that he has somehow seemed to become more productive during a global pandemic - this is his fourth release in as many years and second Lunar New Year release in a row with another already in the can - it's likely in part because he's got a phenomenal team behind him, building an opulent world that also has plenty of room to feel poor and messy once you get away from the rich government officials. Action, when it happens, is quick but exceptionally clear, and the setting is restrictive while featuring room to breathe and spread out.

It's all eventually too much, though, even if it's tightly-edited and fast-moving to the point that it doesn't really feel like it's closer to three hours than two. The film started as a dark comedy but develops an even meaner streak as it goes on without having the satiric barbs to make that cruelty interesting as opposed to just the next bloody step on the way to the finale. I'm not sure at exactly what point this movie had too many twists; the amount of reversals and plans within plans eventually takes away from the fun, fast-paced situation the film stays out with, eventually burning through its dark absurdity as folks reveal agendas and turn on each other. Zhang stages a few darkly comic moments in the finale, but there's a grim end to it all that makes me wonder what the younger, more rebellious version of the director would do with this tale. There's such waste of effort and life here, but he doesn't seem able to call it out as such, because there's a patriotic message on the other end.

(I wonder, a bit, if maybe this is deliberate, same as I did with the second Lake Changjin movie, like having the violence of the noble sacrifice be so over-the-top as to be off-putting is as close to subversive as a Chinese film can get these days.)

Zhang is too good to let Full River Red come out a disaster, and as an American I'm not particularly able to judge how well it does by the poem which inspired it. It may well hit completely differently with the proper cultural context.

Bao ni ping an (Post Truth)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2023 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run; DCP)

The title "Post Truth" winds up being a good enough pun that English-language filmmakers should be ashamed for not getting there first, to be honest. Beyond that, it would be nifty if other filmmakers picked up "Da Peng" Dong Chengpeng's sneakily clever writing and keen sense of how the internet and social media has made a lot of things weird, and ability to get that across without having the characters spend all that much time on their phones.

As with Dong's previous films to reach North America, the action takes place in the city of Ji'an, where ex-con Wei Ping'an (Dong) seems to have things mostly together, until he shows up an hour late to his daughter Moli's school band recital and winds up getting a call from the office, where he and longtime friend Qi Zhifu (Wang Xun) sell cemetery plots. Ms. Feng (Ma Li), whose brother is buried there, is demanding they dig up the woman in the next plot over, saying Han Lu (Victoria Song Qian) was a prostitute - and the Feng family owns the land on which the cemetery is situated. Ping'an, for all his faults, doesn't want to betray his client's trust even after her death, so he sets out trying to find the source of that rumor in hope that he can change Ms. Feng's mind. Meanwhile, Moli (Wang Shengdi) frets about something she saw backstage at the recital - a classmate's fancy pen is lost only to be found in another student's instrument case - with the potential to become a big mess.

Da Peng has a keen, careful eye on how he limits the stakes here; for as much as this may all be important to the people involved, with rich and powerful people occasionally getting pulled into messier situations, neither father nor daughter winds up on the trail of something really big. The filmmakers pile more and more on top of these seemingly minor things until the big finale is kind of crazy without ever feeling like they've lost control or gone into unbelievable territory; the absurd bits are pointed in how they're deployed. The parallel story with the main guy's daughter is that in miniature, crazy little stakes that nevertheless become consuming. There's something very universal about the themes - it could be set thirty years ago and barely mention the internet - but there's something to how that material is handled here that seems particularly well-observed, in how gossip can bounce from one corner of a country the size of China to another, not just being distorted but landing in the hands of people with illogical incentives to make it their own but sometimes seeming to evaporate as it does so. It amplifies the scale and speed of everything but also seems to evaporate almost immediately.

Not that Da Peng and co-writer Su Biao ever stop to ponder this out loud; they're more interested in dropping Ping'an into funny situations. Da Peng sets his character up as a goofball that gets into ridiculous positions on his own but is likable as he doggedly (but sometimes kind of stupidly) tries to get out of them. He's played and written this kind of guy before - the frantic ne'er-do-well with the shaggy dyed hair is kind of a stock character in Chinese comedies - but he's got what seems like a good handle on what happens when that guy is divorced, turning forty, and has a kid who finds him kind of embarrassing even if she loves him. If he's a little more aware of his shortcomings, he's got Li Xueqin helping accelerate things even farther as his sister; she gets some of the broader jokes while capturing how siblings can wind each other up even if they've also got each other's backs. Ma Li takes a somewhat more subdued tone than she often has here, as Ms. Feng has recently lost her brother even if there's the potential to be wry lurking behind that, while Wang Shengdi makes Moli an authentically moody tween without ever being alienating. One likes that kid. Victoria Song makes a great impression in Ping'an's memories of Han Lu, her part is brief and yet one can easily see how his crush can become that sort of loyalty even as she's just mysterious enough to make one wonder about her past.

The filmmakers squeeze every bit of humor they can out of goofy setups without milking them dry, with what I suspect are plentiful guest stars who add to their scenes and then quietly exit, much as was the case with the director's previous films. The bits go from some creative auto repair to a profane bird to a government official working remotely, and there is at least one absolutely brilliant bit where a whole bunch of ground-laying one might have missed pays off in terrific fashion. The film introduces Ping'an in a scene full of jittery energy and lets it ebb and flow a bit until he's finishing with a chase that seems a little off-kilter, and never loses that feel even when they slow the pace down for Moli's scenes where even the smallest thing has this dead-serious earnestness.

For whatever reason, Post Truth got a really random and buried release in the Boston area at least - one early show a day months after it played China - but it was well worth going out of my way for. It's smart and very funny without over-reaching, and seems to understand its time but doesn't seem likely to become dated.

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