Review: Once Upon a Time in the Northeast (2016)

Once Upon a Time in the Northeast

东北往事  破马张飞

China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 98 mins.

Director: Guo Dalei 郭大雷.

Rating: 7/10.

Satirical comedy swings from goofiness to subtler, but has a strong cast and likeable tone.


A small town in northeast China, the late 1990s. Almost 30, Zhuang Jiao’ao (Ma Li) has been pushed by her adoptive father (Guo Liyun), head of the Ligen Private Old People’s Home, founded in 1945, to marry bookshop owner Li Zhuangzhuang (Liang Chao) against her will. When she turns him down at the ceremony – saying she’d prefer to marry the wedding MC, videoshop owner Cheng Libing (Jia Nailiang) – this scuppers the plans of her father to use the wedding gifts to pay off the home’s RMB23,800 debts. Cheng Libing, who was raised as an orphan by the home, vows to help out in some way – without having to marry Zhuang Jiao’ao. However, when the creditors come to loot the home, it is the sudden arrival of Wu Liang (Wang Xun), another former orphan, that saves it. Now a wealthy businessman/gangster from Hong Kong, Wu Liang pays off the creditors and proposes a complete renovation of the old hilltop home. But when he tries to get Zhuang Jiao’ao’s father to transfer ownership of the home, he’s told it was jointly bequeathed to the five orphans who were raised there: Cheng Libing, his girlfriend Li Jingru (Qu Jingjing), Zhuang Jiao’ao, Li Zhuangzhuang and Little Landlord (Yu Yang). All agree to sign over ownership except for Cheng Libing. However, Li Jingru, who is only Cheng Libing’s girlfriend in his own imagination, tricks him into signing the contract and Wu Liang sets about demolishing the whole home in preparation for developing the site with a Hong Kong businessman (Guo Zhongyou). Despite help from Little Landlord’s girlfriend Old Housemaid (Liu Hui), a martial-arts champion, in beating off Wu Liang’s thugs, the orphans finally take the struggle to Hong Kong, where Wu Liang has fled.


After two interesting genre riffs – supernatural drama Apparition 恶灵之门 (2014) and rom-com The Rise of a Tomboy 女汉真爱公式 (2016) – writer-director Guo Dalei 郭大雷 moves up a small notch with his fourth feature, Once Upon a Time in the Northeast 东北往事  破马张飞, an offbeat comedy that swings from goofy mugging through retro tributes to extreme visual stylisation, as a group of onetime orphans fight to save an old people’s home from evil (Hong Kong) property developers. Uniting its many moods, however, is a satirical tone that gently sends up everything it touches and a feeling that Guo and his four co-writers (including regular colleague Xiong Jia’nan 熊嘉南) do know where they’re going, even if the road is a bit bumpy at times. Good chemistry, a likeable cast and an honest sense of fun also work in Northeast‘s favour, just scraping it a 7/10.

It’s the first leading role in a film for TV actor Jia Nailiang 贾乃亮, 32, who pretty much sets the tone as a local videoshop owner who has pancake makeup like a 1960s Mainland film hero but flicky hair like the Zhou Runfa 周润发 [Chow Yun-fat] character in A Better Tomorrow 英雄本死 (1986). The fact that Northeast is set in the late 1990s but everyone is still fooling around as if they’re in a Hong Kong movie from the 1970s or 1980s is half the joke. The plot, too, is basically from the let’s-gang-together-to-save-the-orphanage template, even though it’s embroidered with plenty of other business that fleshes out the leading half-dozen characters and gives the film some emotional heft.

Guo, 40, is himself from Shenyang in northeast China, so the consistent sending-up of the region’s bozo reputation and humour – climaxing in a raucously funny end-titles song hymning the “international fame” of the Northeast’s dialect – can be seen as a love-letter to the region of his birth, even though Guo’s own background was pretty high-end. Born into a theatrical family, he came relatively late to film-making, after passing from theatre to visual arts (design, photography) and music before formal studies at Beijing Film Academy a decade ago. His protean interests can be seen in all of his four features, from his exuberantly low-budget debut, the college-set semi-musical 青春荷尔蒙, literally “Youth Hormones” (2012, directed under the name Guo Lei 郭雷), to the sizably budgeted Northeast, which has a new sense of scale in its production qualities, and on which Guo takes an art direction credit as well as writing and direction.

Jia may be top billed but he’s surrounded by a skilled cast, led by aces theatre/TV actress Ma Li 马丽, 34, whose relatively rare film appearances are always worth catching (Goodbye Mr. Loser 夏洛特烦恼, 2015; Heart for Heaven 一念天堂, 2015). As a fellow orphan who carries a torch for Jia’s idiot, Ma paces her role splendidly, from an initial loudmouth to quietly caring, and provides an emotional framework for the sprawling story. Aside from Guo’s own father, Guo Liyun 郭里云, popping up as the home’s head, the cast is littered with cameos, from Jia’s actress wife Li Xiaolu 李小璐, through Taiwan comedian Jiu Kong 九孔, to Hong Kong’s ubiquitous Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang] and Taiwan veteran Jin Shijie 金士杰 as gangsters. Supporting roles are well drawn, from toothy comedian-director Wang Xun 王迅 (Royal Treasure 极限挑战 皇家宝藏, 2016) as the former friend-turned-corrupt businessman to Qu Jingjing 屈菁菁 as the hero’s breezily duplicitous girlfriend and film newcomer/dance student Liu Hui 刘慧 having fun as a martial-arts champion-to-the-rescue.

Given the lead character’s obsession with Hong Kong movie gangsters, the film’s switch there at the 75-minute mark makes sense but is jarring at the time and isn’t always smoothly handled, especially the action finale. The film recovers its feet in the postscript back in the Northeast China. Throughout, the lighting and composition by Hong Kong d.p. Deng Liguang 邓礼光 is alert to Guo’s references, especially in the brightly-lit forecourt to the old people’s home (like a Golden Harvest martial-arts movie of the 1970s) to the more stylised compositions in, for instance, the Hong Kong finale (like a 1980s gangster movie). Costume design and action by Hong Kong’s Chen Jingyan 陈景妍 and Wu Yonglun 吴永伦 are both resonant, while on the Mainland side editing by Guo regular Zhang Wenting 张文婷 is smooth and music by Guo Sida 郭思达 ditto.

The handle to the Chinese title is a northeast-dialect phrase meaning frantic or ferocious or behaving wildly. Box-office was a respectable RMB106 million, and the closing credits announce a sequel, 东北往事II  悲剧之王, literally “Once Upon a Time in the Northeast II: King of Tragedy”.


Presented by Beijing Yue Hua Entertainment (CN), Beijing Ocean Arts Cultural Communication (CN).

Script: Xiong Jia’nan, Guo Yuanmin, Wu Zhongquan, Liu Yu, Guo Dalei. Photography: Deng Liguang. Editing: Zhang Wenting, Lin Fengchen. Music: Guo Sida. Art direction: Guo Dalei, Yang Xin. Costume design: Chen Jingyan. Sound: Xie Yaoji. Action: Wu Yonglun. Special effects: Dong Mingxing. Visual effects: Zhang Wenting. Executive direction: Liu Junli, Zhang Yuanjing.

Cast: Jia Nailiang (Cheng Libing), Ma Li (Zhuang Jiao’ao), Wang Xun (Wu Liang), Liang Chao (Li Zhuangzhuang/Laopaji, Li Jingru’s elder brother), Yu Yang (Xiaodizhu/Little Landlord), Qu Jingjing (Li Jingru, Cheng Libing’s girlfriend), Jiu Kong [Lv Kongwei] (Wang, school head), Liu Hui (Laoyatou/Old Housemaid, Little Landlord’s martial-arts girlfriend), Guo Liyun (Zhuang, old people’s home head), Jin Shijie (Jiang Hongsheng, Hong Kong gangster chairman), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Wu Gangsheng, Hong Kong gangster), Li Xiaolu (Li Xiaolu), Su Chenyi (Jixiangwu/Mascot), Liu Changsheng (Yang, old man), Liu Liangzuo (Li Dai), Guo Zhongyou (Peng Yongchang), Tian Sheng, Huang Zheng, Feng Lei, Ai Fei, Yang Di, Da Bing, Sang Ping.

Premiere: International Chinese Film Festival (Competition), Melbourne, Australia, Nov 2016.

Release: China, 3 Feb 2017.