Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng
RunTime: 2 hrs 21 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Opening Day: 29 November 2018 (Singapore premiere at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival)
Synopsis: Told in three distinct chapters that span almost two decades, the film chronicles the relationship between Qiao and small-time gangster Bin, whose life she saves—an act which lands her in prison for five years. Upon release, Qiao tries to begin where she left off, only to realise that the world around her has irrevocably changed.
The Chinese title of this film is “Jianghu Er Nv”, which literally translates to “Sons and daughters of Jianghu”. For cinema goers (especially those who are fans of Chinese movies), “jianghu” is an affectionately familiar term. Traditionally used in classical literature to describe the martial arts universe, it is now often used to describe a world with people (usually men) honoring brotherhood and righteousness. The bros in Golden Job come to mind.
At first glance, this Mainland Chinese production seems like a straightforward film. The title and synopsis suggest that this is merely a story about a man and a woman caught in a world of loyal mobsters and shady criminals. Seeing that this is the work of Jia Zhangke, a prominent filmmaker of the "Sixth Generation" movement of Chinese cinema, you can expect anything but a conventional movie.
We first see the protagonists in 2001 and they are wildly in love. Then the guy gets involved in a gang fight and his girlfriend puts a stop to the ruckus by firing shots into the air. When questioned by the police, she takes the blame for her boyfriend says the gun belongs to her. Five years later, she realises that he has moved on with life and has a new girlfriend. Thus begins a journey of tracking him down to find closure. Spanning more than 15 years, the story ends on a melancholic note during a New Year’s Eve that ushers in 2018.
Like Jia’s previous films, there are many elements worth discussing. We hear The Village People’s “YMCA” and Cantopop singer Sally Yeh’s theme songs from Hong Kongmovies. We also see the female protagonist looking at the villages along the Yangtze River, a landmark that has sunk because of the Three Gorges Dam. Then there is a strange conversation between her and a man about UFOs, and her eventual experience with what may have been an extraterrestrial sighting. These reflect the shifting cultures and dynamism that is occurring in China over the past decade. While we aren’t in the position to put a value judgement to how things have changed, it is nonetheless an insightful observation.
Needless to say, the performances from the actors are first rate. Playing the female protagonist with the right amount of gusto and vulnerability, Zhao Tao (who is Jia's wife in real life) has been recognised with numerous awards. Her leading man is Liao Fan (If You Are The One II), who channels a nonchalant yet charismatic authority into his character. It’s almost heartbreaking for a man to see his ego rise and fall as the film progresses. There are also cameo appearances by fellow filmmakers and actors like Xu Zheng (Lost in Hong Kong), Feng Xiaogang (Mr Six), Zhang Yi (Operation Red Sea) and Dong Zijian (Dude's Manual).
If you are already a fan of Jia’s works, this is a must watch. If not, it is a recommended film that will have you checking out his past works which explore similar social themes.
(Powerful performances and pertinent social issues make this film a relevant piece of work)
Reviewed by John Li at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival