Review: Godspeed (2016)

Godspeed

一路顺风

2016, Taiwan/China, colour, 2.35:1, 111 mins.

Director: Zhong Menghong 钟孟宏.

Rating: 6/10.

Black crime comedy is strongly cast but suffers from thin content and an undernourished script.

STORY

Taibei, the present day. Drug dealer Da Bao (Dai Liren) is driven to the airport as usual by his assistant Xiaowu (Wu Zhongtian), who unusually wishes him a safe journey this time. In Bangkok Da Bao meets his regular supplier (Vithaya Pansringarm) but the latter is in a suspicious mood and puts Da Bao’s loyalty to the test. Back in Taiwan, in the south, Da Bao reports on the incident to his regular client Tuo (Tuo Zonghua), whom he’s known for 15 years. He tells Tuo not to worry, and that he’ll get his delivery of heroin in two weeks’ time. In Taibei Da Bao has hired petty thief Na Dou (Na Dou), who sets off to make the trip to the south by taxi, returning the same day. Standing by the road, he’s badgered by a driver, Xu (Xu Guanwen), to use his old taxi; Na Dou finally agrees after they make a deal. Originally from Hong Kong, Xu moved to Taiwan 20 years ago and married a local; he’s been working all night and keeps nodding off, but needs the business. As Na Dou’s meeting is not until 15:00, they decide to stop off for a meal. Xu mistakes a roadside crowd for a popular restaurant; in fact it’s a funeral, and Xu pretends to be a friend of the deceased in order to get some free food. When there turns out to be none, he’s forced to pay a minimum funerary donation of NT$2,500 to escape. Da Bao and Xiaowu, who are secretly tailing Na Dou, wonder why he stopped off at a funeral. The taxi eventually arrives at the derelict amusement park where Tuo has his office in a disused bowling alley. Xu makes his delivery and is paid; but then Tuo is suddenly assassinated by two of his staff (Chen Yiwen, Liang Hequn). The killers pile Na Dou, who’s been accidentally wounded in the leg, and Xu into the boot of a car and abandon them in the countryside. Meanwhile, Da Bao has called Na Dou and told him to lie low while he sorts things out. However, the confused Xu simply wants to get back to Taibei as soon as possible.

REVIEW

A thief-turned-drug mule and a scraggy old taxi driver become embroiled in a gang putsch in Godspeed 一路顺风, the fourth and most accessible feature by Taiwan writer-director Zhong Menghong 钟孟宏 since his striking debut almost a decade ago with the black comedy Parking 停车 (2008). Though it’s not so prone to art-creep as The Fourth Portrait 第四张画 (2010) and (especially) Soul 失魂 (2013), there’s still a lack of real development in the script and characters, and a reliance on veteran star power to carry thin content – none of which faults affected the precision-tooled Parking. In Portrait Zhong traded on the presence of veteran actor Jin Shijie 金士杰 and in Soul on that of 1960s/1970s martial-arts legend Wang Yu 王羽 [Jimmy Wang]; here it’s another icon from the old days, Hong Kong writer-director-comedian Xu Guanwen 许冠文 [Michael Hui], now 74, who almost singlehandedly redefined Cantonese film comedy during the 1970s and 1980s. But even his drily humorous performance as a money-obsessed cabbie can’t really disguise how much better Godspeed could have been with a few more rewrites.

One problem with Zhong’s script is that it has no clear dramatic arc. The opening 15 minutes set up the central character as drug dealer Da Bao – nicely played by Zhong regular Dai Liren 戴立忍 [Leon Dai] in one of his cleanest performances – following him to a tense meeting with his regular supplier in Thailand and then back to Taiwan where he reports to his old customer Tuo (fine character actor Tuo Zonghua 庹宗华, another Zhong regular). However, the focus then shifts to another pair: a petty thief whom Da Bao hires to make the drugs run from Taibei – played with weasily nervousness by pint-sized actor Na Dou 纳豆, another Zhong regular – and an old Cantonese taxi-driver (Xu) who does a deal to get the fare. What looks like finally developing into an odd-couple road movie, with a witty stopover at a funeral en route, soon takes another left turn: after a shooting leaves the pair stranded in the countryside, Da Bao returns to the forefront to sort out the problem.

The film does end on the drugs mule and the cabbie celebrating a kind of bonding, but its emotional power is diffused by the lack of focus to that point. Things aren’t helped, either, by Dai’s strong presence throughout as Da Bao (which detracts from what should be the star performance by Xu) or by the movie’s drifting tone, now humorous, now threatening, now taking time out for pointless diversions (such as a long and bloody torture scene).

In heavily accented Mandarin, Xu calibrates his performance as the old Cantonese cabbie with sly skill and comic authenticity, the character moving from flattery to anger in a trice but with his eye never far from the bottom line. But with Na Dou’s character a generally sullen companion, Xu is often performing in a vacuum, with minimal chemistry between the two. Ironically there’s better (if briefer) chemistry between Dai and Wu Zhongtian 吴中天 [Matt Wu] as his sidekick, communicated in knowing glances. As well as the regulars in the cast, two of Zhong’s director pals appear in cameos – Chen Yiwen 陈以文 (The Cabbie 运转手之恋, 2000) as an assassin and Chen Yuxun 陈玉勋 (Tropical Fish 热带鱼, 1995; Zone Pro Site 总铺师, 2013) as a droll vet who patches up Na Dou’s wound.

Music by Zeng Siming 曾思铭, whether gently ominous and bassy or lighter and fretted, is a help throughout. Widescreen photography by Japanese d.p. Nakashima Nagao 中岛长雄 (The Fourth Portrait; Soul) is his best work yet with Zhong, only using striking compositions when dramatically required. Too bad Zhong’s script is not so focused or thought-through as the visuals: though it’s not short on dialogue, much is either gangsterly cod-philosophising or meaningless padding, which only serves to highlight the thinness of the overall content. The film’s Chinese title is a common pre-travel wish, like “Safe Journey” or “Bon Voyage”.

CREDITS

Presented by 3 NG Film (TW), Taipei Postproduction (TW), Arrow Cinematic Group (TW), Huace Pictures (Tianjin) (CN). Produced by 3 NG Film (TW).

Script: Zhong Menghong. Photography: Nakashima Nagao. Editing: Lai Xiuxiong. Music: Zeng Siming. Art direction: Zhao Sihao. Styling: Xu Liwen. Sound: Guo Liqi. Action: Kecha Khamphakdee, Huang Jianwei.

Cast: Xu Guanwen [Michael Hui] (Xu Yingjie), Na Dou [Lin Yuzhi] (Na Dou), Dai Liren [Leon Dai] (Da Bao), Tuo Zonghua (Tuo, gang boss), Wu Zhongtian [Matt Wu] (Xiaowu), Chen Yiwen (Wen, Tuo’s gang member), Liang Hequn (Xiaoliang, Tuo’s gang member), Vithaya Pansringarm (Thai druglord), Huang Jianwei (man at funeral), Zhuang Yizeng (old cook), Lin Meixiu (Xu Yingjie’s wife), Chen Yuxun (vet), Lin Daoyu (Cai, Tuo’s drug tester), Jin Shijie (Na Dou’s father in photo), Zhuang Mingcai (Heizai/Blackie), Chen Menghong (driver).

Premiere: Toronto Film Festival (Vanguard), 9 Sep 2016.

Release: Taiwan, 18 Nov 2016; China, tba.