Review: Single Man (2010)

Single Man

光棍儿

China, 2010, colour, 16:9, 92 mins.

Director: Hao Jie 郝杰.

Rating: 7/10.

Cleverly constructed, low-key character comedy in a northern Chinese village with sex mostly on its mind.

STORY

Gujiagou village, Zhangjiakou municipality, Hebei province, northwest of Beijing, the present day. Four old single men – Bighead Liang (Liang Youzhong), now over 70, Gu Lin (Du Tianguang), Liuruan (Liang Chunying) and Old Yang (Yang Zhenjun) – while away their time in grouchy banter, remembering their sex lives as young men. Back in 1966 Bighead Liang (Wang Yu) lost his hand in a hay-cutting machine when flirting with the future mother (Wen Hailan) of Qiao San (Hang Zhipeng). Back in 1945 Gu Lin (Shi Qiang) was abandoned by his wife (Huang Zhaozhi) while trying to grope his sister-in-law (Li Xingxing) in their shared bed one night. In the 1940s 12-year-old Liuruan (Li Zicheng) was in an arranged married to a young woman (Wang Xiaoqing) but refused to sleep with her on their wedding night. Back in 1975 as a young shepherd Old Yang (Liu Xuedong) got local girl Eryatou (Li Yang) pregnant. Now middle-aged, Eryatou (Wang Suzhen) is married to village head Hao (Wang Zhenbin) and has a grown son, Hao Jian’gen (Hao Jie), who is still trying to pass his university entrance exam, but she and Old Yang still have regular sex when her husband is away. One day Old Yang decides to take a wife and buys a Sichuan girl (Ye Lan) from some human traffickers (Du Pu, Zhao Fan) for RMB 6,000. But she tries to run away after their first night together, and then Qiaosan tells his parents that he is in love with her and wants her as his wife.

REVIEW

There’s no shortage of Mainland “village films” in which the locals are engaged in a little hanky-panky, but it’s rare to find one in which sex is the only thing on their minds – apart from getting a decent price from outsiders for their watermelons. Beijing Film Academy graduate Hao Jie 郝杰 sets his low-key black comedy Single Man 光棍儿 in his home village of Gujiagou, a couple of hundred kilometres northwest of Beijing, using friends and relatives for an only slightly exaggerated portrait of a rural community in which the close-knit bonds between everyone are expressed in a typically gruff, northern way but underpinned by a mutual dependency that means disputes can always be sorted out pragmatically after some steam has been let off.

The film slides into its four main characters in an original way, with flashbacks briefly sketching the sexual adventures of their youth before the main plot – Old Yang’s decision to buy a young wife from some human traffickers – clicks in, with consequences that reshuffle long relationships in the village. In its offhand way, the script is cleverly constructed in its character play, and Hao keeps things moving with the minimum of film-school affectations. (For a start, the movie is set during summer, not the bleak northern winter so beloved of indie directors.) Though the sexual content is visually discreet, the dialect-thick dialogue has a fruity, rural directness (from both men and women), and Hao manages the tricky task of letting the humour come out of the situations rather than playing everything as broad comedy.

As the oldie whose sex drive is still unabated, Yang Zhenjun 杨振君, the only professional actor in the film, is excellent as Old Yang, and Wang Suzhen 王素珍 is equally lusty and entertaining as his youthful lover who, though now married and a mother, is still up for a quickie in the fields (or even on a bed). As Yang’s bought bride from Sichuan, Ye Lan 叶兰 – one of several crew members taking on-screen roles, including Hao himself as a studious son and d.p. Du Pu 杜普 as a seedy human trafficker – doesn’t have much of a character but conveys the alienation of a young southern outsider in a northern community. Editing, by Hao, Ye and Du, has a natural and easy flow, and Du’s photography is scenic when dramatically necessary. The Chinese title can mean either a single man or a hoodlum.

CREDITS

Produced by Heaven Pictures Culture & Media (CN).

Script: Hao Qitian, Yang Cuilan, Hao Jie. Photography: Du Pu. Editing: Hao Jie, Ye Lan, Du Pu. Production design: Wang Lei. Art direction: Wang Weida. Sound: Qiao Jing, Wang Shuo. Executive direction: Hao Guoying, Yang Cuilan.

Cast: Yang Zhenjun (Old Yang), Du Tianguang (Gu Lin), Liang Youzhong (Bighead Liang), Liang Chunying (Liuruan), Yang Zhanbiao (deaf man), Ye Lan (Sichuan girl), Wang Suzhen (Eryatou, village head’s wife), Hang Zhipeng (Qiao San), Wang Jinde (Qiao San’s father), Chen Xiulan (Qiao San’s mother), Wang Zhenbin (Hao, village head), Hao Jie (Hao Jian’gen, Hao’s son), Shi Weizheng (Ergen), Han Shiyu (young girl), Liu Xuedong (young Old Yang), Li Yang (young Eryatou), Shi Wenxi (Eryatou’s father), Yang Cuilan (Eryatou’s mother), Wang Yu (young Bighead Liang), Wen Hailan (Qiao San’s mother, when young), Sun Yanxin, Shi Yafan (hay-cutting women), Shi Qiang (young Gu Lin), Huang Zhaozhi (Gu Lin’s wife), Li Xingxing (Maogen, Gu Lin’s sister-in-law), Li Zicheng (young Liuruan), Wang Xiaoqing (young Liuruan’s wife), Li Guangming (Liuruan’s father), Zhao Meifang (Liuruan’s mother), Pang Shanliang (servant in Liuruan’s home), Qin Ling, Li Hong (watermelon buyers), Zhao Jia (prostitute), Zhang Xiuhua (Wen, teacher), Cao Yushan (Liu, teacher), Chen Lin (hairdresser), Du Pu, Zhao Fan (human traffickers), Yu Chengying (strange woman).

Premiere: San Sebastian Film Festival (Zabaltegi: New Directors), 24 Sep 2010.

Release: China, 14 Dec 2011.

(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 21 Dec 2010.)