China, 2010, colour, 2.35:1, 115 mins.
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帅.
Engrossing drama of a father researching his son’s death, with a great lead performance by Wang Xueqi.
Chongqing, central China, the present day. After belatedly hearing about the death of his 25-year-old son Lin Bo (Zi Yi) in a shopping-mall incident six months earlier, ship’s captain Lin Quanhai (Wang Xueqi) returns to the city where he used to live, for the first time in 14 years. His old friend, Jin (Wang Kuirong), is glad to see him; but Jin’s son, Hao (Qin Hao), who was Lin Bo’s best friend, is initially surly and unhelpful. Lin Quanhai tries to piece together exactly how his son died from friends, family and witnesses, including his first wife, Li Yuying (Ding Jiali); Lin Bo’s girlfriend, Xiaowen (Li Fei’er); a doctor, Zhu Qing (Fan Bingbing); and a shop assistant, Lingzi (He Yumeng). Hao gradually starts to open up to him and, as he draws closer to the truth, Lin Quanhai has to confront his own failure as an absent father.
Since his award-winning Beijing Bicycle 十七岁的单车 (2001), middle-generation Mainland director Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帅 has often been let down either by imperfect scripts or by miscasting (Drifters 二弟, 2003; Shanghai Dreams 青红, 2005; In Love We Trust 左右, 2008). In Chongqing Blues 日照重庆, however, he gets all his ducks in a row, with a well-paced screenplay co-written with Yang Yishu 杨翌舒 that’s almost like a daytime urban noir, and with a commanding lead performance by veteran actor Wang Xueqi 王学圻 (whose role as the acidic opera star in Forever Enthralled 梅兰芳, 2008, was the best thing in the movie). The script has an in-built emotional momentum that develops as a single gentle wave, not in a traditional three-act structure, and Wang Xiaoshuai draws genuine emotion from his characters without distracting directorial affectations. Wang Xueqi’s casting, as the grizzled old sea wolf, is simply superb: rarely has a whole film been etched so clearly in an actor’s face as here.
The story recalls Luxury Car 江城夏日 (Wang Chao 王超, 2006) in a father’s search for his son in a large Mainland metropolis, but in Chongqing Blues there is no criminal subplot: the son’s death is simply a tragic tale of one misunderstanding leading to another, and as Wang Xueqi’s sea captain learns more about what happened that day (and the emotional currents behind it) the finger increasingly points at him as the “guilty” party. With the camera constantly following him around the streets of Chongqing, allowing the audience to discover the city along with him, the viewer becomes so empathetic with Wang’s seaman that the emotional twist at the end is doubly jolting. (The film’s Chinese title can also be read two ways, either as “Sunshine Chongqing” or “Rizhao Chongqing”, the latter giving a slight clue to the final twist.) Equally cleverly, however, the end offers some hope for the father, and a chance to put into practice what he’s learned.
Though young actor Qin Hao 秦昊 (Shanghai Dreams; In Love We Trust) develops some interesting chemistry with Wang as the film progresses, it’s the older cast the film is notable for, epecially Wang Kuirong 王奎荣 as the lead’s best friend, Ding Jiali 丁嘉丽 as his first wife and, in a strong single scene, Zhang Yong 张勇 as the police officer who shot the son. Dressed down, but inescapably exuding some of her usual star lustre, Fan Bingbing 范冰冰 is fine as a young doctor caught up in the incident without actually being given much of a character.
The film could still do with minor trimming, especially in the second half as the voyage of discovery nears its end; but the overall rhythm and tempo is the most natural in Wang Xiaoshuai’s movies for a considerable time. The fretted music by Peter Wong creates effective smidgeons of mood and tension in the second half, while the widescreen camerawork by regular d.p. Wu Di 邬迪 is always well composed despite being handheld.
Presented by Tempo Films (CN), Beijing Bona Film & TV Culture (CN), WXS Productions (CN). Produced by Tempo Films (CN).
Script: Yang Yishu, Wang Xiaoshuai. Photography: Wu Di. Editing: Yang Hongyu, Fang Lei. Music: Peter Wong, Henry Wu. Art direction: Lu Dong. Costumes: Pany Guan. Sound: Fu Kang. Executive direction: Li Shuang.
Cast: Wang Xueqi (Lin Quanhai) Fan Bingbing (Doctor Zhu Qing), Qin Hao (Hao), Zi Yi (Lin Bo), Li Fei’er (Xiaowen), Wang Kuirong (Jin), Ding Jiali (Li Yuying), Zhang Yong (Liu, police officer), Li Lingyu (Fang Hui), Zhang Jiaze (Liu Cheng), He Yumeng (Lingzi), Wang Lan (Lingzi’s cousin), Li Qing (policeman).
Premiere: Cannes Film Festival (Competition), 13 May 2010.
Release: China, 5 Nov 2010.
(Originally published on Film Business Asia, 13 May 2010.)