The Village of No Return
Taiwan/China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 111 mins.
Director: Chen Yuxun 陈玉勋.
Painfully unfunny comedy, set in the Early Republic, is poorly written and plays like a TV production.
China, the Early Republic, 1914. Three years after the fall of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China, the country is in chaos. An ambitious aristocrat (Zeng Zhiwei), who believes he is destined to rule if he can capture a nearby town, uses Zhu Dabing (Ban Zan), a peasant from nearby Yuwang [Desire] village, to deliver some secret letters to his fellow inhabitants. When he arrives, the village is excited by the news that a railway line is to be built; village founder/head Wang (Gu Baoming) says everyone will prosper. Suddenly, however, Zhu Dabing is found dead by his wife, Zhang Qiurong (Shu Qi). The rigid, blackened corpse suggests poison and the prime suspect is Zhang Qiurong herself, who had tried numerous times to run away. A passing lay priest, Tian Gui (Wang Qianyuan), offers to solve the crime by using his valuable Zhou-dynasty gizmo, the Worry Ridder 忘忧, which reveals people’s real thoughts by clearing their brains of worry. But after passing out from too much drink, Tian Gui finds himself tied up in Zhang Qiurong’s home and his gizmo stolen by the villagers. Zhang Qiurong’s friend, martial-arts expert Wan Li (Zhang Xiaoquan), finds the two undelivered letters on Zhu Dabing’s body – to Wang and village doctor Liu (Zhang Shaohuai) – telling them and their fellow villagers to start a revolt in the nearby town and occupy it. They are to be joined by bandits of the Cloud Gang, led by Dark Cloud, aka the local postwoman (Lin Meixiu). Zhang Qiurong admits to Wan Li and Tian Gui that her husband accidentally died from a poisoned bun with which she was going to commit suicide. And now she’s heard that her lover Wang Dingyuan (Yang Youning), son of the village head, is returning after three years away. As he is the only person who can work it, Tian Gui retrieves his Worry Ridder by doing a deal with the village head to use it to make the villagers listen to him. However, Tian Gui ends up wiping the memories of the whole village, taking over Wang’s position, and making Zhang Qiurong his wife. Then Wang Dingyuan, who’s actually part of the Cloud Gang, arrives with some fellow bandits.
After his strong comeback to feature films with the likeable foodie comedy Zone Pro Site 总铺师 (2013), Taiwan film-maker Chen Yuxun 陈玉勋 (Tropical Fish 热带鱼, 1995; Love Go Go 爱情来了, 1997) falls flat on his face with lame period comedy The Village of No Return 健忘村. Produced in Taiwan on a mixture of local and Mainland money, and set somewhere in China during the chaotic early years of the Republic, it’s a painfully unfunny, silly-arse farce that’s poorly written, with little sense of direction or structure, and shot and performed like a TV production, with none of Chen’s usual bold use of colour and design. The only members of the cast to rise above the juvenile Taiwan humour are Shu Qi 舒淇, as a young widow, and Mainland character actor Wang Qianyuan 王千源, as a “lay priest”-cum-conman. In China the film crashed and burned, taking only RMB16 million.
Between Zone and Village, Chen co-wrote wannabe black comedy The Laundryman 青田街一号 (2015) which also suffered from the same problems, running on empty most of the time as it mugged its way from scene to scene. Village starts off with Hong Kong’s Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang] in a funny wig as a noble plotting rebellion in a nearby (unseen) local town, switches to a village where the inhabitants are going to prepare the way, turns briefly into a murder mystery when a peasant is found poisoned, introduces a passing conman posing as a lay priest who offers to solve the whodunit, keeps referring to the planned putsch without advancing it in any way, and then – 50 minutes in – finally seems to get to the point: Village is a comedy about a conman who brainwashes an entire community with an antique gizmo and then takes over as village head.
Well, yes and no. The idea of the brainwashed yokels being on a permanent “happy high”, and having such short memories that they can’t even remember their own names, is only briefly developed as the conman goes about his dastardly plan. Before long, the script, by Chen and Taiwan short film-maker Zhang Yaosheng 张耀升, crowbars the putsch strand back in, with some bandits led by the local postwoman (portly comedienne Lin Meixiu 林美秀) re-introduced into the plot. Character veterans like Gu Baoming 顾宝明 (here playing the devious/stupid village head) clock in professionally but can’t motor the film; neither, alas, can an established younger actor like Zhang Xiaoquan 张孝全 [Joseph Chang], who looks as lost here as he did as the hitman in Laundryman. To give of his best, Zhang needs a strong script and a sharply defined character, neither of which he gets here as a comic/soppy martial-arts expert. Fellow Taiwan actor Yang Youning cameos near the end, enlivening Shu but not making much of a mark with his own character.
It’s left to Shu, 40, and China’s hatchet-faced Wang, 44, to give the film some kind of shape. However, Shu, who’s turned many a lame movie into one worth watching just for her performance, seems uncertain how to play her widow character in the early stages and only really finds her feet an hour in. It’s Wang – so good as the amoral kidnapper in Saving Mr. Wu 解救吾先生 (2015) and as the older, ambitious colleague in Brotherhood of Blades 绣春刀 (2014) – who gives the film some backbone, in a commanding performance from his first appearance that’s both evil and sympathetic. The problem, like the rest of the movie, is that it’s not particularly funny.
Naturalistic production and costume design are up to scratch, and widescreen photography by Taiwan d.p. Yao Hongyi 姚宏易 is bright and attractive but with none of the occasional resonance of his work on Laundryman. As in Zone, the bouncy music by Wang Xiwen 王希文 jogs things along. Whereas the film’s English title makes it sound like a horror film, the Chinese one (“The Forgetful Village”) is more to the point. Location shooting was around Pingdong, southern Taiwan.
Presented by Beijing In-Entertainment Media (CN), Aureola Films (CN), 1 Production Film (TW), MandarinVision (TW), Warner Bros. (Far East) (Taiwan Branch) (TW), B’in Music International (TW), Videoland Television Network (TW), Aureola Media (CN), Beijing Baidu Netcom Science Technology (CN). Produced by 1 Production Film (TW), MandarinVision (TW).
Script: Chen Yuxun, Zhang Yaosheng. Photography: Yao Hongyi. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai], Gao Kuijun. Music: Wang Xiwen. Art direction: Huang Meiqing. Costume design: Wu Lilu [Dora Ng]. Sound: Fu Kang, Tang Xiangzhu. Action: Yang Gil-yeong, Cha Jae-geun. Visual effects: Li Zhaohua, Ye Renhao.
Cast: Shu Qi (Zhang Qiurong/Autumn), Wang Qianyuan (Tian Gui/Fortune Tian), Zhang Xiaoquan [Joseph Chang] (Wan Li/Hero Wan), Lin Meixiu (Wu Yun/Dark Cloud), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Shi Baopi/Rock Peeler), Gu Baoming (Wang, village head), Zheng Youjie (Zhang Qiurong’s father), Ying Weimin (evil man), Xu Jiehui (Lin Jincai/Golden Lin), Wu You (Li, scholar), Niuniu Wangfang (Chunhua/Spring, Lin Jincai’s wife), Zhang Shaohuai (Liu, doctor), Ban Zan (Zhu Dabing/Big-Pie Zhu), Huang Jianwei (Qing Yun/Blue Cloud), Ke Yulun (Zi Yun/Purple Cloud), Chen Zhusheng (Hong Yun/Red Cloud), Chen Yilun (Jin Yun/Gold Cloud), Lin Wenqi (Huang Yun/Yellow Cloud), Chen Datian (head butler), Yang Youning (Wang Dingyuan, Wang’s son), Li Jie (pedicurist), Qian Yu’an (Gou Dan/Doggie Eggs), Chen Yanzuo (Zhu Erbing/Little-Pie Zhu), Chen Wanhao (Butong/No Pain, Tian Gui’s attendant), Yan Wude (Buyang/No Itch, Tian Gui’s attendant), Li Chen’an (young Zhang Qiurong).
Release: Taiwan, 26 Jan 2017; China, 28 Jan 2017.