China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 102 mins.
Director: Han Han 韩寒.
Time-travel light comedy is a likeable nostalgia exercise for millenials, with Deng Chao on top form.
Shanghai, 2022. After winning an important race in the Hangzhou countryside, rally driver Xu Tailang (Deng Chao), 23, publically thanks his father Xu Zhengtai (Peng Yuyan), who is present, but then adds how his father had always discouraged him in realising his true dream. Afterwards, Xu Tailang takes his father for a high-speed drive but, while showing off, crashes into a moving train. As he hangs between life and death, his whole past flashes before him: how he was raised by his ex-con father when his mother Zhang Suzhen died soon after giving birth, his first high-school crush, his first prostitute, his job as an ambulance driver, then chauffeuring for a gangster, and finally becoming a rally driver. He then finds himself transported back to his rural hometown in early Oct 1998, the year before his birth. After chasing a thief into an alley, he’s helped by a “street warrior” who identifies himself as Xu Zhengtai (Peng Yuyan), 24, his future father. A layabout who models himself on young punks in Hong Kong films, Xu Zhengtai leads a tiny group of friends who call themselves the Zhengtai Gang – street vendor Liuyi (Gao Huayang), who has an unreciprocated crush on KTV girl Jiayi (Xiong Li), and computer geek Ma Huateng (Dong Zijian). When Xu Tailang meets Xu Zhengtai’s girlfriend Niu Aihua (Zhao Liying), and learns they are to be married next month, Xu Tailang panics and realises he must get his future father together with his future mother, Zhang Suzhen – otherwise he’ll never be born. Xu Tailang tries to date Niu Aihua in order to break up her relationship with Xu Zhengtai. Meanwhile, the Zhengtai Gang becomes embroiled in a turf war over the KTV bar Beloved, which Xu Zhengtai has endeavoured to keep “clean”, with the girls just singing. A rival gang, led by car thief Luo Li (Zhang Benyu), kidnaps Ma Huateng, whom Xu Tailang eventually helps rescue. But then Niu Aihua tells Xu Tailang some surprising news, and a more powerful gangster, Huang Zhiqiang (Li Ronghao), enters the frame.
A cocky 23-year-old time-travels back to just before his birth and gains a new understanding of the father he’s always resented in Duckweed 乘风破浪, the second feature by bad-boy writer/blogger/professional rally driver Han Han 韩寒, 34, after his interesting debut with the metaphysical road movie The Continent 后会无期 (2014). Though the content is not especially new – blending a nostalgia for youth (a particular favourite with 80s-Gen film-makers) with the mini-fad for time/age-travel stories (Miss Granny 重返20岁, 2015; Suddenly Seventeen 28岁未成年, 2016) – Duckweed is a likeable, easygoing look at provincial “wild days”, marbled with some clever comic twists and topped by a skilfully ironic performance from actor Deng Chao 邓超. The film has none of the intellectual ambitions of The Continent but is none the worse for that. The least glitzy of this year’s CNY crop, it’s managed to accelerate to over RMB950 million after three weeks on release in the Mainland, already overtaking The Continent‘s final tally of RMB630 million.
The biggest influence on the film – which Han acknowledges at the end, along with Back to the Future (1985) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) – is actually the Hong Kong production He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father! 新难兄难弟 (1993), written by Li Zhiyi 李志毅 [Lee Chi-ngai] and directed by Chen Kexin 陈可辛 [Peter Chan] and Li, in which a young guy accidentally travels back some 40 years and discovers his father wasn’t such a loser after all. In Duckweed the passage of time is only half that – showing how the “remote past” is still a recent event for China’s turbo-charged millenials – but Han’s screenplay cleverly times it to the year before the protagonist’s birth, which not only led to the death of his mother from post-partum depression but also foreshadowed a six-year jail term for his layabout father. The story, therefore, is not only about Xu Tailang getting to better understand his father but also about him meeting the mother he never knew. The comic twist is that, when he arrives in his small hometown and is introduced to his future dad’s girlfriend, her name is different from that of Xu Tailang’s mother. Panicking that, if the pair marry, he’ll never exist, Xu Tailang sets out to break up the relationship and find his real future mum.
It’s a role that Deng, who can sometimes over-mug (The Breakup Guru 分手大师, 2014), calibrates perfectly this time, becoming part of the ensemble while also anchoring the wry, comic tone (as in the recent I Belonged to You 从你的全世界路过, 2016), as well as providing discreet leadership when needed to his future father’s inept street gang. Deng, 38, just about gets away with playing early 20s, as do the other key cast (whose ages range from 23 to 36). More’s the shane, then, that there’s no chemistry between him and Taiwan’s Peng Yuyan 彭于晏 [Eddie Peng], who plays not only his future father but also, in the story’s bookends, his actual father. In his younger scenes as a wannabe gang leader who’s watched too many Hong Kong movies, Peng, with a floppy hairdo, too often looks like he’s acting; in his older scenes, behind makeup, he simply looks ridiculous.
It’s the only serious miscasting in a strong lineup. TV’s Zhao Liying 赵丽颖, who’s steadily cutting a bigger film profile, is fine as the father’s girlfriend and shares at least one touching scene, underscored with an ironic sadness, with Deng as they chat in the street. Rising young name Dong Zijian 冬子健, 23, is low-key as a computer geek, who’s comically given the same name as Tencent internet tycoon Ma Huateng 马化腾. The other gang member is played OK by Han’s fellow rally-driver Gao Huayang 高华阳, 36, who was the left-behind pal in The Continent. Among the supports, Taiwan veteran Jin Shijie 金士杰 has some fun as the local police chief and TV comedian Zhang Benyu 张本煜 ditto as an inept rival gang leader. Apart from Zhao’s, other female roles are minimal: Duckweed is even more of a boys’ movie than The Continent, and is far happier larking around than plumbing any real emotional depths.
Technically, the film is solid without being outstanding. Widescreen photography by Cheng Ma Zhiyuan 程马志远 (Silent Summer 沉默的夏天, 2012) is nowhere near as imposing as that by Liao Ni 廖拟 for The Continent, instead drawing a small, no-name Zhejiang town with a realistic drabness. One technical standout is the effects shot in which Xu Tailang’s car (actually Han’s own rally car) collides mid-air with a moving train. The film’s original title is a proverbial phrase meaning “Riding the Wind, Braving the Waves” – somewhat ironic here, as the characters’ ambitions are decidedly mixed. Deng’s funny-sounding character name Xu Tailang 徐太浪 is a tribute to China’s top rally driver Xu Lang 徐浪, who died in an accident in 2008.
Presented by Shanghai PMF Media (CN), Horgos Orange Image Media (CN), Shanghai Bona Culture & Media (CN), Hangzhou Guomai Culture & Media (CN). Produced by Shanghai PMF Media (CN).
Script: Han Han. Photography: Cheng Ma Zhiyuan. Editing: Bai Yuxia, Xiao Yang. Music: Peng Fei. Art direction: Wang Kuo. Sound: Guo Ming. Action: Chen Jiafu.
Cast: Deng Chao (Xu Tailang), Peng Yuyan [Eddie Peng] (Xu Zhengtai), Zhao Liying (Niu Aihua), Dong Zijian (Ma Huateng), Jin Shijie (Jin, police chief), Jiaoshou Yi Xiaoxing [Yi Zhenxing] (studio photographer), Zhang Benyu (Luo Li), Li Ronghao (Huang Zhiqiang), Gao Huayang (Liuyi), Li Chun (Chun, street thief), Xiong Li (Jiayi, KTV girl), Li Chunyuan (Xiaochun, hairdresser), Sun Yihan (Luo Li’s wife), Sun Qiheng (Sun, policeman), Sun Qiang (Xu Tailang’s co-driver), Peng Feiming (Feifei, KTV girl), Jia Xichuan (Xu Tailang’s high-school first love), Zhang Guoqing (noodle restaurant owner), Cheng Cheng (Chen, Xu Tailang’s teacher), Bai Luoli (Luo Li’s gang member), Fang Li (bathhouse boss), Guo Jiajie (rally driver), Leng Haiming (ambulance doctor).
Release: China, 28 Jan 2017.