City of Rock
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 117 mins.
Director: Da Peng 大鹏 [Dong Chengpeng 董成鹏].
Goofy comedy about a group of losers is a warm-hearted tribute to the spirit of rock’n’roll.
Beijing, the present day. Cheng Gong (Da Peng), a onetime member of legendary hard-rock band Broken Guitar 破吉他, decides to relaunch a hopeless group he’s been managing for four years. However, the investor (Fan Wei) who’d promised him RMB500,000 spends the money instead on double-eyelid surgery and a long cruise. Broke, Cheng Gong gets a call from Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), a huge fan of Broken Guitar at primary school, who offers to pay him to manage a band in Ji’an, Jilin province, northeast China. Hu Liang sends him RMB100,000 in advance. However, when Cheng Gong arrives, he discovers Hu Liang has no more money. He wants Cheng Gong to organise a concert to stop the redevelopment of the city’s Park of Rock, in which stands a giant Grand Guitar monument erected in memory of a long-ago visit by Broken Guitar. When Cheng Gong discovers Hu Liang doesn’t even have a band, he threatens to leave; but Hu Liang agrees to pay him a further RMB100,000 to quickly form one, as the concert on 30 Sep is mere weeks away. In what Hu Liang claims is a City of Rock 摇滚之城, only two people turn up for auditions – Ding Jianguo (Gulnazar), a punkish female bassist with a broken leg, and Explosive (Li Hongqi), a Taiwan drummer who plays with his back to the audience. Hu Liang manages to recruit two more players – primary-school keyboardist Qiao Meixi (Qu Junxi), whose fierce mother (Dai Lele) opposes her interest in music, and rock musician-turned-gynaecologist Yang Shuangshu (Han Tongsheng), who promised his daughter he’d never return to rock’n’roll. Qiao Meixi is smuggled out at night to the rehearsals in a disused car-repair factory, and Yang Shuangshu wears a mask. With Hu Liang as guitarist and lead singer, and shop-owner Sun Dali (Yu Qian) as their roadie, the group somehow manages to blend. They do promo gigs around town and call themselves Sewing Machine 缝纫机乐队. However, when the park’s redeveloper – Ding Jianguo’s father, Ding Wei (Wang Jinsong) – hears about his daughter’s involvement in the band, he orders his men to discreetly sabotage the concert. He also tells them to keep wannabe gangster Zhang Facai (Yu Yang), who is obsessively in love with Ding Jianguo, away from her.
Two years after his runaway hit, superhero parody Jianbing Man 煎饼侠 (2015), former online TV presenter-turned-filmmaker Da Peng 大鹏, 35, turns his comic gaze on another aspect of celebrity culture in City of Rock 缝纫机乐队. A typical mixture of slyly goofy comedy, hymn to the underdog and soft-centred romanticism, it’s his personal love letter both to the power of rock’n’roll and to his “bordertown” birthplace of Ji’an, northeast China. Taking some RMB300 million in its first two weeks, the film has been a solid success without coming close to Jianbing‘s super RMB1.16 billion. [Final tally was RMB457 million.] But Da Peng’s second feature as writer-director-actor is a maturer work, with more character development alongside the gags and everything underscored by what seems like a real fondness for rock’s oddball characters and transformative music.
The film is also very much a comic pairing between Da Peng and fellow northeasterner Qiao Shan 乔杉, 33, who guested in Da Peng’s online sketch show Diors Man 屌丝男士 (2012-15) and had a small role in Jianbing as the gangster businessman’s assistant. More recently they were together – playing a wannabe entrepreneur and an incompetent loan-collector – in the fitfully amusing comedy Father and Son 父子雄兵 (2017), a Da Peng vehicle directed by Yuan Weidong 袁卫东 in which their scenes had the most resonant comic chemistry. In City the character formula is much the same, with Da Peng as a big-talking but penniless manager and Qiao as a tubby rock’n’roll fan who hires him to form an ad hoc band for a concert to save a Rock Park from redevelopment. There’s rather too much camp comedy between the two this time round (with Qiao overdoing the mincing) but the chemistry is intact, adding to the films’ basically sweet flavour beneath all the goofier parodies and setpieces.
With a floppy hairdo and more discreet specs, Da Peng downplays his character in favour of the rest of the cast, with double-takes replacing mugging. To a lesser extent than in Jianbing, star bits stud the movie, from veteran comedian Fan Wei 范伟 (the father in Father and Son) and elfin actress Zhou Dongyu 周冬雨 (a gag about her recent A Nail Clipper Romance 指甲刀人魔, 2017), through a voice cameo by Taiwan actress/super-model Lin Zhiling 林志玲, to several veteran rock’n’rollers. The other main players merge well as an ensemble, with Uyghur actress Gulnazar 古力娜扎 (The Game Changer 游戏规则, 2017) as a bolshy bassist in a leg cast, Taiwan’s Li Hongqi 李鸿其 (the young punk in the awful Thanatos, Drunk 醉•生梦死, 2015) as a wacko drummer with a broad accent, Mainland veteran Han Tongsheng 韩童生 (the taxi-driver in 12 Citizens 十二公民, 2014) as a legendary guitarist-turned-gynaecologist, and – in the film’s loopiest idea – child actress Qu Junxi 曲隽希, 8, as the rockin’ keyboardist. The sequence of the misfits magically coming together as a band during their first rehearsal is beautifully played and cut.
The script, co-written with Su Biao 苏彪 (Jianbing Man), loses some traction in the second half which reveals Da Peng’s background in comic sketches. However, the extra character detail that results does help the emotional heft of the finale – a joyous, over-the-top anthem to rock’n’roll that parodies other films’ concert finales but in a big-hearted way. Technical credits are all fine without being distractingly slick; at almost two hours, however, the film would benefit from losing 10-15 minutes. The Chinese title is the name of the group, literally “The Sewing Machine Band”. Shooting was in Beijing and Ji’an, though the latter is not shown off in any picturesque way.
Presented by The City Film (CN), Shanghai Ruyi Film & TV Production (CN), Youth Enlight Pictures (CN).
Script: Da Peng [Dong Chengpeng], Su Biao. Photography: Gao Hu. Editing: Tu Yiran. Music: Peng Fei. Music direction: Zhao Yingjun. Art direction: Wang Jing. Styling: Zhao Yige. Sound: Dong Xu, Zhang Jia. Action: Wu Gang, Gao Xiang. Special effects: Gareth Repton.
Cast: Da Peng [Dong Chengpeng] (Cheng Gong), Qiao Shan (Hu Liang), Gulnazar (Ding Jianguo, bassist), Li Hongqi (Zhayao/Explosive, drummer), Han Tongsheng (Yang Shuangshu, guitarist), Qu Junxi (Qiao Meixi, keyboardist), Yu Qian (Sun Dali, roadie), Wang Jinsong (Ding Wei, Ding Jianguo’s father), Yue Yunpeng (Qiao Dashan, Qiao Meixi’s father), Dai Lele (Li Meiyan, Qiao Meixi’s mother), Yu Yang (Zhang Facai/Boss Fortune), Zhao Yingjun (Jun), Song Xiaobao (Broken Guitar’s guitarist), Wen Song (Broken Guitar’s drummer), Fan Wei (delinquent investor), Zhou Dongyu (Lili, tattooist), Lin Zhiling (voice of Tiantian/Sweety, radio announcer), Ma Daming (Shuai), Zhang Yiming (lead singer of Cheng Gong’s group), Yi Yunhe (bassist of Cheng Gong’s group), Cao Ranran (drummer of Cheng Gong’s group), Cao Tongrui (young Hu Liang), Liu Xiaoguang (Broken Guitar’s bassist), Song Xiaofeng (Broken Guitar’s lead vocalist), Yuan Shanshan (pancake-stall woman), Song Qian (dance teacher), Ye Shirong, Huang Guanzhong (guitarists).
Release: China, 29 Sep 2017.