Director: Guan Hu
Cast: Feng Xiaogang, Kris Wu, Li Yifeng, Zhang Hanyu, Xu Qing, Liu Hua, Liang Jing
Runtime: 2 hrs 17 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes and Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 21 January 2016
Synopsis: Mr. Six (Feng Xiao Gang) was a hooligan when he was young. After 30 years, the has-been is diagnosed with heart disease and lives by himself, running a convenience store. His son, Xiaobo, doesn’t get along with him and moved out long ago. One day, Xiaobo is taken by a group of rich kids after scratching one of their fancy cars. Their head, Xiaofei, is the son of a powerful government official. Mr. Six tries to reason with them but gets humiliated instead. Enraged by the overbearing gang, Mr. Six summons his old pals and plans to pick one last fight to win Xiaobo back.
This reviewer wishes to age like the protagonist in this Chinese crime drama film directed by Guan Hu (Eyes of a Beauty, Design of Death). Affectionately known as “Lao Pao Er” (also the film’s Mandarin title), our hero is a 50 odd year old uncle who used to reign the streets of China’s Beijing as the neighbourhood gangster. Now retired, the man just wants to sit back, relax and take care of his pet mynah bird.
While he doesn’t seek out trouble, it comes to him when his son causes a dispute with a street racing gang. The doting father decides to take matters into his hands and return to the scene, only to find out that a younger generation is in charge – one with a different worldview and way of doing things.
Played by Feng Xiaogang, a blockbuster director himself (If You Are the One, Back to 1942), the protagonist is one you’ll easily identify with – especially if you are world weary like this writer. One issue comes after another in the series of events after his son’s kidnap, but you see “Lao Pao Er” trudging on tirelessly and quietly. He obviously does not take joy in dabbling in such matters, but he is a man who just moves on and on – until he can do so no more.
This characterisation works on several levels. “Lao Pao Er” is a symbol of the older generation in Mainland China. He is loyal to his friends, takes traditional culture seriously and enjoys life’s simple pleasures. What’s this generation’s place in the contemporary world then, one that places emphasis in all things digital, flashy and provide material comfort?
Besides a reflection on the current culture, the movie also seems to be of the view that the art of filmmaking has changed. What will happen to the good old style of storytelling with the advent of digital effects, green screens and computer generated movie characters?
The answers to the above questions are obvious, as suggested by the final sequence of the 137 minute movie. Melancholic? Yes. Inevitable? That’s a yes too.
Feng is a joy to watch – the director actor writer delivers a perfect portrayal of the film’s central character. You feel that this is one man who you can sit down with at a coffee shop, listening to his stories and realising there’s more to life than chasing accolades. Called out of retirement to rescue his son, you see the man selflessly pursuing his objective, while abiding by his age old values. One highlight of the movie is seeing the father and son exchange which takes place over dinner in a local eatery. Feng’s nuanced yet powerful performance earned him a Best Actor win at the 52nd Golden Horse Awards.
Supporting “Lao Pao Er” is an ensemble of interesting characters. There’s the loyal friend played by Zhang Hanyu (Special ID, The Taking of Tiger Mountain), the lover played by Xu Qing (The Founding of a Republic, Looper), the somewhat bratty son played by Li Yifeng (Forever Young, Fall in Love Like a Star) and the brash gang member played by former boyband EXO member Kris Wu. It is also apparent from this cast list that the veterans are the ones calling the shots.
The film has drama, comedy and even surrealism. Watch out for a bizarre yet calming scene towards the end of the film. Without giving away too much, the sequence involving a runaway ostrich may hold the answer to what life is really about.
(With the rapid changes in our society, this film featuring a powerfully nuanced performance by Feng Xiaogang as “Lao Pao Er” tells a timely and heartbreakingly real story of inter-generational differences)
Review by John Li