The Biggest Toad in the Puddle
China, 2014, colour, 2.35:1, 99 mins.
Director: He Weiting 何蔚庭 [Ho Wi Ding].
Lightly satirical study of greed and cupidity in a Hebei village.
Hama [Toad] village, Hebei province, northern China, the present day. Tian Sheng (Fan Lei) and his old friend Baolai (Li Sibo) are among several workers who are affected when local mine owner Wang Liming (Yang Hua) cuts production and lays off workers, still owing them three months’ wages. Baolai decides to look for work in the city; the indecisive Tian Sheng returns to his wife Xia Ying (Yang Jing’er) and young son Guagua (Zhou Chenghao) to ponder his future. When the village head (Wang Xiaoxi) announces that residents will be allocated plots of land in compensation for a new motorway that will be built nearby, Tian Sheng ends up with the Northern Plot, the worst of all. However, while having a hole drilled on it to find water for the house he’ll build there, he finds there’s a hot spring under his plot – a discovery that could potentially make him rich and transform the economy of Toad village. Suddenly everyone wants to know Tian Sheng and his family. The village head recommends that Tian Sheng brings in the mine owner as a partner, as the latter has the capital and business experience to construct a hot springs resort. Yang Hong (Yan Jie), a long-lost school friend of Xia Ying, turns up and tries to muscle in as a business adviser. When Tian Sheng resists the pressure by the village head and mine boss, things start to get dirty – and Tian Sheng finally has to take a decision in his life and fight back, with Baolai’s help.
The gentle character studies of director He Weiting 何蔚庭 [Ho Wi Ding] have so far fallen into the category of “slim but likeable” – the allegorical Pinoy Sunday 台北星期天 (2009), about two Filipinos carrying a sofa through Taibei, and the intimate family portrait My Elder Brother in Taiwan 酒是故乡浓 (2012), centred on a Cross-Straits reunion. In the space of two features, He evolved from being an episodic director with a background in shorts to one who could handle larger story spans. In his third feature, The Biggest Toad in the Puddle 水煮金蟾, the Malaysia-born, Taiwan-based film-maker takes another step forwards: not only is it his first film set in China but also it’s his first with an overtly satirical edge, focusing on an indecisive but honest worker whose life is transformed by a surprise discovery on a plot of land.
Though the film is set in a tiny community in Hebei province – the fictional Hama [Toad] village 蛤蟆村 – it could be set, like any good allegory, in any village anywhere. Tian Sheng is a middle-aged miner who’s just been laid off and is owed three months’ wages by the mine’s boss; when he’s given a plot of land by the local government, in compensation for a motorway that will be built near the village, he finds a hot spring under it that could make him rich. Suddenly everybody – from an old schoolfriend of his wife to the sleazy local mine boss – wants to be his friend, and help him build a resort that will transform not only his life but also that of the whole community.
As a satire on human greed and cupidity, the movie is not especially original; but the performances by the whole cast – and He’s self-effacing direction of them – give it an attractive lack of cynicism: these people, He seems to say, may be greedy and duplicitous but you can’t help liking them despite their faults. As the hapless and hopeless Tian Sheng, who’s never stood up for anything in his life, character actor and stand-up comic Fan Lei 范雷, 41, anchors the film with a self-effacing performance, while others, like TV actors Wang Xiaoxi 王晓曦 and Yang Jing’er 杨静儿, supply humour in varying quantities.
Wang is especially funny as the village head whose pompous, linguistically contorted speeches mean absolutely nothing, while Yang, in a quieter role as Tian Sheng’s patient and loving wife, comes into her own in the second half as she blooms under the self-serving blandishments of an old school friend who’s magically re-appeared in her life. Three old men in the sleepy village function as a kind of Greek chorus to humorous effect.
Even though the film takes place in a tiny village, Toad has a much bigger feel than He’s previous two features. This is partly due to it being set on the bigger stage of China rather than in the backwater of Taiwan: the characters are more expansive, and there’s a sense of them being just a tiny part of a much bigger social fabric that the viewer never sees. But despite all that, He hasn’t lost his gift for character observation and his basically benign view of human nature.
Despite being a Mainland production – by the same company that financed My Elder Brother – He has continued to use several key crew from Taiwan, including d.p. Chen Houquan 陈厚全 (Fluffy Rhapsody 起毛球了, 2000), editor Xu Weiyao 许惟尧 (Pinoy Sunday) and composer Feng Shizhe 冯士哲 (My Elder Brother), all of whose contributions are pointed but naturalistic, with Feng’s cheeky, perky score jogging along the satire. The Chinese title of the film, which was shot in Longhua county, Chengde, literally means “Boiled Golden Toad”.
Presented by Beijing New Era Film (CN). Produced by Beijing New Era Film (CN).
Script: Chen Tianqu, Yang Tianlin, Ma Xiaoping. Photography: Chen Houquan. Editing: Xu Weiyao. Music: Feng Shizhe. Art direction: Chen Tianqu. Sound: Wang Shengwei, Sidney Hu.
Cast: Fan Lei (Tian Sheng), Yang Jing’er (Xia Ying, his wife), Wang Xiaoxi (village head), Yan Jie (Yang Hong), Yang Hua (Wang Liming, mine boss), Li Sibo (Baolai), Zhao Zhizhe (Sihun, Wang Liming’s heavy), Wang Yingqi (Ba Jinsheng), Xiao Shaoquan (township head), Zhou Chenghao (Guagua, Tian Sheng’s son), Cheng Long (Dahai, village kid), Zhang Weiqi (Xia Ying’s father), Yang Tianlin (guard), Xu Chen (driver).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival (Focus China: Chinese New Films), 14 Jun 2014.
Release: China, tba.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 18 Jun 2014.)