Saturday, September 02, 2023

No More Bets (Gu zhu yi zhi)

Welp, that post the other day where I said I hated a movie got the second-most views of anything I've posted in six months, so…

(I don't actually hate this as much as MR-9)

Anyway, this is China's biggest movie of the summer, having made $470M or so over the past month, a reminder that China is big and has a lot of people who like to go to the movies, although it's not quite the stunning numbers you would see for Lunar New Year or Memorial Day in late September just before the pandemic. I didn't much care for Shen Ao's previous feature, and he's been involved in a couple of patriotic anthology films, so I probably shouldn't have expected much, although that many people going for it makes for something to check out, just to sort of keep tabs on what's a big deal around the world.

Is it a genuine hit or astroturfed, the way those anthology films often are? I couldn't guess; it feels like something that officialdom could be recommending folks see, but it's also really easy for me to presume censorship or a thumb on the scale, but it could just be the sort of thing that shows up organically in that environment.

Pretty packed house, though, even for a 4:45pm show. And there's a preview for the new Herman Yau flick, which looks enjoyably disreputable, compared to this film's painful earnestness.

Gu zhu yi zhi (No More Bets)

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2023 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

Ah, silly me; I looked at the description of this movie and thought it would be about two clever young people plotting a jailbreak under their captors' very noses. But, no, it's not that, and while it's easy to say that would be too individualistic for the censors when, instead, the Chinese authorities can come in and set things right between stern messages about the dangers of online fraud, the why doesn't really matter; that it's a drab film more concerned with saying the right things than telling a good story.

The two prisoners are Pan Sheng (Zhang Yixing), a talented computer programmer who rage-quits his old job when passed over for a promotion but seems to quickly land on his feet with Firefly Games in Singapore, but an excursion during a layover with team leader Lu Bingkun (Wang Chuanjun) leads to their passports being taken and being herded at gunpoint to a sweatshop where they will be building malware apps and processing the stolen information. There, he meets Anna Liang (Gina Jin Chen), a model released by her agency after illicit use of her image damaged her value to them; she was offered a job as an online casino host by An Juncai (Sunny Yan Sun) only to have her passport held until she brings in an unreasonable amount. Meanwhile, back home in Xianjiang City, recent college grad Gu Tianzhi (Wang Talu) is hooked on online gambling by this app, despite the best efforts of girlfriend Song Xiaoyu (Zhou Ye) to keep him from spiraling.

It's frustrating, because you can see a good arc there for Pan, with the cocky computer prodigy brought down by his hubris before turning the tables to do what's right, and something similar for his unlikely partner Anna, but just as soon as the audience has met them, there's a long detour into Tian's story, and it shifts the whole movie from interesting and overmatched individuals trying to get out to the collective power of China trying to get in. And yet, that only happens because of a basically unexplained bit of mercy after a run of gleeful viciousness, because the villains get even less chance to be interesting than the heroes. It's a momentum shift that emphasizes the seeming helplessness of all the characters - Pan and Anna are easily duped at the start and seemingly everything they do to try and get out makes the situation worse, while Tian's addiction is immediate and unstoppable, with nothing Yu or his family can do to slow it down. All of that is individually realistic, but not particularly exciting.

That's a waste of a pretty good cast at times, as both Zhang Yixing and Gina Jin do nice work making characters who seem a bit entitled at the start easily sympathetic, and building a connection that isn't propped up be obvious romance or shared righteousness. Zhou Ye is earnest and charming as Yu, nicely offsetting how hard Wang Talu emotes as Tian. Wang Chuanjun builds Lu from kind of fishy to monstrous well.

Maybe the actual events that inspired the film were very much like this, and the filmmakers are just being true to that. Even if that's the case, so much has been fictionalized (the bad guys' headquarters is in the fictional city and country of Vanae, Canan rather than Myanmar) that there's plenty of room to make the story an exciting thriller rather than a drab lecture. There are a lot of lectures - Yong Mei plays an investigator whose job mostly seems to be delivering or facilitating speeches on the subject of gambling and fraud - and co-writer/director Shen Ao is maybe at his most creative when presenting money as a false idol, especially the U.S. dollars that frequently take the place of food but offer no nutrition (you can't even spend them in Vanae). He and his collaborators are relentlessly on-message, right down to the "China on the march" music as a group of medal-festooned senior police officers announce their intentions to fight this scourge.

It's worth mentioning that despite how slick or grimy (as appropriate) much of the movie is, there's some oddly terrible CGI fire at the climax, and in retrospect that almost seems like an accidental metaphor: The folks making this movie can certainly communicate an idea or an aesthetic, but when it comes time to actually have characters do things, they're kind of faking it, and not very well.

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