Heart for Heaven
China, 2015, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins.
Director: Zhang Cheng 张承.
Black comedy about a dying conman and a wannabe actress starts strongly but then jumps the tracks.
A city in Guangdong province, southern China, the present day. After he is diagnosed with an incurable brain tumour, and told he has only three to six months to live, wannabe actor-cum-professional conman Shen Mo (Shen Teng) decides to spend his remaining time doing something more meaningful and for the benefit of society. In the past he has helped the police on several cases, though always kept a low personal profile; now he has decided, with his geeky partner Du Yu (Du Xiaoyu), to personally infiltrate some local criminal gangs, including one, led by Yao Dezhi (Liu Xiaobao), that sells fake medical supplies and another, led by gangster Jia (Xu Ruoqi), that practises phone scams. One day, by chance, he spots a cute but hopelessly old-fashioned singer on a private web channel whom he thinks he recognises but can’t remember where: she is Ma Xiaoli (Ma Li), an ingenuous woman in her 30s who shares a flat with two far more successful web entertainers, the younger Lan Lan (He Meixuan) and Qiqi (Huang Di). Shen Teng is intrigued by her but also can’t help seeing her as someone to be conned. At the small roadside he uses as a base – having conned the owners (Zhang Heping, Liu Xin) into going on the run – he sets up a meeting with Ma Xiaoli, inviting her promote Yao Dezhi’s company. Despite the unexpected arrival of Jia and his team, who’ve come to celebrate what they believe is Shen Mo’s birthday, the meeting just about goes OK for both parties, with Ma Xiaoli also putting up a fake front, as a successful actress. Meanwhile, Du Yu has fallen hard for a beauty, Xiaowei (Wang Zizi), and wants to go off with her. Unfortunately, she happens to be the woman of gangster He Dachang (Lin Xue), who sends a neurotic Japanese hitman (Li Yuanpeng) to kill them both.
The second of two 2015 films headlining actor Shen Teng 沈腾 and actress Ma Li 马丽 – known for their work together in the Beijing-based comedy troupe Ma Hua FunAge 开心麻花 – Heart for Heaven 一念天堂, released on the final day of the year, didn’t replicate the runaway box-office success of Goodbye Mr. Loser 夏洛特烦恼 three months earlier but, despite its faults, is still an entertaining showcase for the popular pair. Shen’s talent for straightfaced humour is well deployed in this black comedy of a dying conman who decides to do something meaningful with his remaining days; and as the ingenuous, wannabe performer he kind of falls for, Ma again shows she can invest seemingly routine roles with surprising depth. Overall, Heart for Heaven doesn’t realise the promise of its first half, but on a pure performance level it is always involving.
It’s actually easier to describe what the film isn’t rather than what it is. After a strong set-up, with a wannabe actor-cum-conman reflecting on how “all the world’s a stage” etc., and how he’s decided to do something meaningful with his talent in his final months by bringing down some local scammers, the movie doesn’t become either a caper comedy like Crazy Stone 疯狂的石头 (2006) or Personal Tailor 私人订制 (2013), or the tale of a man discovering moral rectitude after a lifetime of dissimulation. It’s also not just a love story between two wannabes – the conman who thinks he’s an actor and the web singer who thinks she can become famous. If it’s about any one thing, it’s about two dreamers who think they’re riding the crest of the wave in opportunity-rich New China but are actually only on its edge, living in a la-la land of their own.
The film’s most striking image, where they freeze one night in a dancerly pose as if in a romantic musical, is also its most frustrating – hinting at a movie that Heart for Heaven never becomes. The problem is that writer-director Zhang Cheng 张承, then 38, who has a background in theatre and shot to film fame with his script for Crazy Stone a decade ago, doesn’t seem sure how to develop his opening premise and strong first act. The film is much more ambitious than his previous two features – offbeat rom-com Marriage Trap 婚礼2008 (2008) and wannabe black crime comedy The Suspicious 最佳嫌疑人 (2014) – but is still muddled in execution.
It’s often very strong in individual sequences – such as the main characters’ lengthy first meeting in the roadside restaurant, with Shen and Ma bouncing off each other, or the single take where Shen’s character changes identities while walking between two meetings – but as a movie (rather than a theatre piece, which it sometimes recalls) Heart for Heaven has no clear sense of direction. It’s very good on small realistic details – shards of everyday life that any Mainland viewer will recognise – but weak on structure. Apparently at a loss how to resolve all his material, and already tied up with some clumsy childhood backstory about the main character, Zhang opts for a goofy finale involving a Japanese hitman (played by Japanese-educated singer-actor-model Li Yuanpeng 李元鹏). It’s meant to show how the conman is forced to finally drop his man-of-mystery act and become engaged in real life but only ends up wrecking the fragile comic tone thus far.
Though the movie is really Shen and Ma’s show (in that order), other roles are well drawn, especially the suspicious but idiotic gangster of Xu Ruoqi 徐若琪 and the conman’s nerdy colleague played by Du Xiaoyu 杜晓宇 (also a member of Ma Hua FunAge). Though Shen and Ma (both from the northeast) play characters from that region – the basis of at least one joke – the film is actually set down south in Guangdong province, where it was shot in Foshan. Apart from pointed moments of high style, widescreen camerawork by Hong Kong’s Chen Weinian 陈伟年 (I Am Somebody 我是路人甲, 2015; My War 我的战争, 2016) has no special look; music by soundman An Wei 安巍 is stylish when required, often riffing on Carlos Gardel’s famous tango, Por una cabeza.
Released amid the usual year-end flurry of big pictures, the film grossed only a modest RMB83 million in China. The Chinese title, which comes from a longer proverb about heaven and hell, roughly means “One Idea of Heaven”, referring both to the conman’s imminent death and to his profession.
Presented by Beijing Tianhe Shengyan International Cultural Media (CN), Kingdom Prosperity (Beijing) Investment Management (CN), Heyunchou (Beijing) Network Technology (CN).
Script: Zhang Cheng, Cao Peng, Shao Peixun. Photography: Chen Weinian. Editing: Yu Xi. Music: An Wei. Theme song: Yan Tianwu. Vocal: Zhang Lei. Art direction: Song Xiaojie. Sound: Ma Lijun, Fang Yuan, An Wei. Action: Liu Songfeng. Special effects: Xu Bin. Executive direction: Jiang Yuecheng.
Cast: Shen Teng (Shen Mo), Ma Li (Ma Xiaoli), Du Xiaoyu (Du Yu), Wang Zizi (Xiaowei), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (He Dachang), Li Yuanpeng (Yokooka Motoho, Japanese hitman), Liu Xiaobao (Yao Dezhi, medical supplier), Xu Ruoqi (Jia, gangster), Lu Niu (Peng), Hong Jiang (Peng’s wife), He Meixuan (Lanlan), Huang Di (Qiqi), Pu Pao (Lian, Jia’s niece/assistant), Zhang Heping (Zhu, restaurant owner), Liu Xin (Zhu’s wife), An Hanjin (Long, gangster), Jia Hongliang (Chen, doctor), Feng Wei (Chen’s wife), Jiang Yuecheng (old herbalist doctor), Cheng Wen (Xiaowu), Fu Xiangjun (Xiaohong), Zhang Hua (Hua), Su Zhidan (Hu).
Release: China, 31 Dec 2015.