A Busy Night
China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 86 mins.
Director: Wang Li 王莉.
Entertaining caper comedy benefits from a strong script and generally good casting.
Beijing, late Jun 2015. Moped driver Niu Dawei (Li Jing) drives the heavily pregnant Sun Tingting (Ma Li) into Beijing to see her husband Wang Guoliang, aka Gou (Lin Xue), on a surprise visit to have her baby in the capital. Niu Dawei 牛大伟. Gou (“Dog”), who runs a pet shop from his flat in a seedy part of town, takes a long time to answer the door, and Sun Tingting even checks for signs of a mistress. At dinner, Niu Dawei asks Gou if he’s recently seen Liu Dan (Jin Beinbei), the former’s girlfriend who seems to have disappeared; Gou makes a call and says she’s just left Beijing to go back home. Gou has a row with Sun Tingting and the two stalk off. Driving home through the backstreets on his own, Niu Dawei sees a young woman crawling on the ground. Gou 阿狗. Sometime earlier that day, Gou and his mistress Liu Dan rehearse how to snatch a woman’s bag. In an underground car park they snatch the handbag of Du Xiaomi (Sheng Langxi) while she is on the phone to her father Du Jianfeng (Qin Pei), head of Guohua Securities; but they accidentally knock her out. Thinking his daughter is being kidnapped, Du Jianfeng offers to pay any ransom, and Liu Dan spntaneously demands RMB100,000. She and Gou carry her back to Gou’s flat and put her in a cupboard; Liu Dan also steals her diamond ring, which looks the same as her own fake one. They then hear Sun Tingting knocking at the door, so Liu Dan hides inside a red-white-blue canvas bag; when everyone leaves, she finds she can’t open the bag. After their row at dinner, Gou and Sun Tingting make up but she has contractions and has to be rushed to hospital. Back in his flat, Gou finds Liu Dan gone. Zhou Yang & Lily 周阳 & Lily. Earlier that day the home of Du Jianfeng is picketed by journalists and investors who want their money back. Du Jianfeng fakes exhaustion and leaves for Kangde Hospital with his assistants Zhou Yang (Cao Yunjin) and Lily (Zhou Weitong), who are also lovers. However, Lily then discovers that Du Jianfeng and his daughter are planning to fly to Los Angeles the next day and leave them to face the music. To stop them going, Zhou Yang hires his brother-in-law, Gou, to snatch Du Xiaomi’s handbag with her passport, though he doesn’t tell Gou the reason why. When he and Lily hear from Du Jianfeng at the hospital that his daughter has been kidnapped for a RMB100,000 ransom, they think Gou is trying to profiteer. At Gou’s flat they find the red-white-blue bag but mistakenly think it’s Du Xiaomi who’s inside. They drug her and put the bag in their car boot. Meanwhile, Du Xiaomi wakes up in Gou’s cupboard and groggily crawls outside into the road, where Niu Dawei, going home from dinner, sees her. Them 他们. At Kangde Hospital, a reporter (Cui Tan) and his cameraman (Li Lu) are checking up on whether Du Jianfeng is really registered there. At the same time, Niu Dawei runs in, carrying the unconscious Du Xiaomi is his arms, and Gou is attending to his wife, who’s going to the delivery room on a stretcher. It’s going to be a long, complicated night for everyone.
A well-written example of the one-thing-leads-to-another crime comedy that Mainland film-makers have shown a special liking for during the past decade, A Busy Night 情况不妙 is also a big step up for Hebei-born Wang Li 王莉, a writer-director in her early 30s whose only other theatrical feature was the solid but standard heartwarmer New Coming Teacher Lee 新来的李老师 (2010), set in a primary school in rural Shaanxi, which she directed and co-wrote. As a brain-twisting caper comedy, Night benefits from a cleverly constructed screenplay that actually makes sense and doesn’t run out of puff after an hour, plus a sense of ensemble that makes the characters more than just cut-outs running around. Maybe due its lack of starpower, the film made no impression on release; but Night‘s script has the necessary structure to carry bigger names and slicker direction.
With its limited number of main locations (a flat, a sidestreet, a hospital room, a mortuary), and small central cast, Night sometimes has the feel of a play – and could easily be adapted to one. Wang has written and directed both a play (麻将人生, 2009) and a musical (至爱, 2010), and what would otherwise be an entirely plot-driven, clockwork piece certainly gains by having actors with theatre experience (actresses Ma Li 马丽 and Li Man 李曼 both bookend the film, as the main character’s pregnant wife and a bolshie petrol-station attendant, while Cao Yunjin 曹云金 is among those powering the central section), as well as an actor like Qin Pei 秦沛 [Paul Chun] who has vast experience in general.
Wang appears to have studied the genre as, like the best corkscrew crime comedies, Night starts out from a simple set-up and grows from there, revealing itself through time shifts (though without captions like “three hours earlier”) and packaging the whole affair within a limited time span (here, approximately 24 hours). The action starts with a heavily-pregnant pet-shop owner’s wife visiting her errant husband in Beijing and, when he takes a while to answer the door, the audience just knows there’s something up. The screenplay takes about 15 minutes to answer that question but by then the plot has already expanded from three people to eight, including a fraudster who’s planning to skip the country with his daughter, and his two employees who are trying to stop him. At the 30-minute point, the characters all converge on a hospital for different reasons and pretty much stay there for the next 40 minutes, with several trips to its mortuary.
There’s a slight dip in the film’s momentum around the hour mark, with Wang seeming not sure how to stage the mortuary scenes; but she saves something for the final 15 minutes, prefaced by a nicely played pause for breath on the hospital’s roof as dawn breaks. As the fraudster’s assistants who are covertly working against him, both Cao (who has stand-up comedy experience) and Shui-minority actress-model Zhou Weitong 周韦彤 (who has considerable physical presence) make a strong pair, and manage to stand up against Qin’s full-on performance as the veteran fraudster. In only a few minutes of screentime, the always reliable Ma carves a strong figure as the suspicious, pregnant wife from out of town, while top-billed stand-up comic/presenter Li Jing 李菁 is good as the kindly moped-driver who only wants to find the girl who’s jilted him.
Curiously, the one actor who seems out of tune with the ensemble is veteran character actor Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet], 52. Though strongly identified with Hong Kong, thanks to his films for director Du Qifeng 杜琪峰 [Johnnie To], Lin was actually born in Tianjin, northern China, and didn’t emigrate to Hong Kong until the age of 14. In Night he acts fine in his native Tianjin Mandarin but, as the portly pet-shop owner who gets caught up in shennanigans he can’t control, he gives a blustering performance that doesn’t have the command such a leading role needs.
Apart from the rather chaotic mortuary scenes, with its handheld, poorly lit photography, the film looks fine thanks to d.p. Jian Liwei 简立威 (Go! Lala Go! 杜拉拉升职记, 2010; Impossible 不可思异, 2015). Music by Luan Hui 栾慧 perks the comedy and action along, with bass guitar, pizzicati and other well-used devices. The film’s Chinese title means “The Situation Is Not Great”, a phrase that could also be translated as “Situation Normal, All F**ked Up”.
Presented by Beijing Hairun Pictures (CN), Zhejiang Hengdian Film & TV Investment (CN), Beijing Sun Entertainment Culture (CN), Zhejiang Dongyang Xiaoyuzhou Film & TV Media (CN).
Script: Wang Li. Photography: Jian Liwei. Editing: He Sisi. Music: Luan Hui. Art direction: Huo Li. Sound: Xu Ying. Executive direction: Liu Jiaxi.
Cast: Li Jing (Niu Dawei), Cao Yunjin (Zhou Yang), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Wang Guoliang/Gou), Ma Li (Sun Tingting), Zhou Weitong (Lily), Sheng Langxi (Du Xiaomi), Qin Pei [Paul Chun] (Du Jianfeng), Li Man (petrol-station attendant), Jin Beibei (Liu Dan), Sui Cunyi (Qiang, Du Jianfeng’s bodyguard), Cui Tan (Ding, reporter), Li Lu (Ding’s cameraman), Qi Guang (mortuary attendant), Gao Yi (older mortuary attendant), Du Qinyi (switchboard operator).
Release: China, 29 Jul 2016.