To Kill a Watermelon
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 88 mins.
Director: Gao Zehao 高则豪.
A beautifully tooled conversation piece that’s gently humorous, well cast and always entertaining.
Somewhere in China, the present day, mid-summer. For the past 20 years, near the village of Dashe, Chen Cao (Dong Yong) has tended his watermelon field and sold the produce at a nearby roadside stall. He and his wife (Li Yu), who brings his lunch every day, have a grown son who only contacts them when he needs money. One evening village head Wang Daqiang (Liu Hua) arrives drunk at Chen Cao’s stall and complains that the county leader is visiting him tomorrow and how the local party secretary is always lecturing him on cutting down on entertainment. Early next morning a customer (Hu Ming) stops by and asks to rest for a couple of hours as he’s been on his motorbike all night. Afterwards, he and Chen Cao have a discussion about melon growing, social obedience, and some proverbs in a book Wang Daqiang gave Chen Cao. As the man leaves, Chen Cao runs after him to return a RMB100 note he dropped, and thereby avoids being injured when a car ploughs into his stall. The drunk driver turns out to be the county leader, and Chen Cao is given RMB1,000 in compensation and hush money. The next day Chen Cao tells his wife how grateful he is to the stranger for effectively saving his life. But when some police come by to question him, Chen Cao learns the man is called Li Hongguo and is on the run after massacring eight people in a burst of rage.
A humble roadside vendor goes through a Damascene conversion in To Kill a Watermelon 杀瓜, a classy conversation piece that marks a major leap forward for writer-director Gao Zehao 高则豪 after his modest TV movie Dabing’s Shakespeare 大饼的莎士比亚 (2009), set in a rural primary school, and the wobbly crime drama Witness 目击者 (2012), starring Taiwan’s Gao Jie 高捷 [Jack Kao]. From casting and playing to writing and direction, it’s a beautifully tooled piece of precision chamber cinema that isn’t shackled by its dialogue or stagebound by its artifice, and manages to package interesting ideas in an entertaining, gently humorous and accessible way. A modest production that doesn’t grandstand its themes, at less than 90 minutes it feels just right.
Based on a short story by Shandong-born writer Dong Libo 董立勃, 61, Gao Zehao’s screenplay is entirely set around the stall of Chen Cao, next to the field where he’s been growing watermelons for 20 years and beside a flat, straight, tree-lined road that could be many places in China. (Place names mentioned in the dialogue – Tong’an, Maxiang and Dashe – all come from around Gao’s native Xiamen, in Fujian province, though the setting is deliberately anonymous.) His wife brings him lunch every day from their village, the pair have a grown son who never contacts them unless he needs money, and there’s a small platform where Chen Cao sleeps during the heat of summer. In other words, so far, so provincial, so normal. Apart from routine conversation with his wife and the local village head (who pops by for drunken moans about local politics), Chen Cao’s companion for most of the time is a melon head on a stick, a dramatic device that allows him to express his thoughts. That is, until one day when a stranger drops by and starts to gently question Chen Cao’s respectful, Confucian attitudes to family, society and one’s superiors.
The scene in which the pair’s conversation gradually turns from watermelons to higher matters is beautifully calibrated: as the stranger, actor-singer Hu Ming 胡明 is friendly, clearly educated but also slightly menacing, while as the melon-seller Dong Yong 董勇 (an opera-trained actor who often plays cops in TVDs) is also friendly, clearly intrigued but also afraid to countenance the stranger’s disquieting ideas. Even when Chen Cao later discovers the stranger’s identity, he feels indebted to him in several ways – from which springs the central moral dilemma that eats at Chen Cao’s soul.
As one thing leads to another, the script gradually layers irony on irony in a blackly humorous way, often leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps. That’s never more so than in a late-on scene in which Chen Cao is interviewed by a TV reporter (TV actress Cao Xiwen 曹曦文, good) who starts off in routine mode but gradually realises she’s stumbled on more than she really wants to know. In the tiny cast, other supporting roles are equally well drawn: smiley veteran character actor Liu Hua 刘桦 as the village head who’s always cadging free melons, and presenter-actress Li Yu 李煜 in a rare film role as Chen Cao’s desperately ordinary wife.
Watermelon does require a certain knowledge of Mainland society to get the fullest from it, but at a human level – and the dilemma that Chen Cao finds himelf in – it’s always accessible. The only three characters who are given names are all aptly monikered: Chen Cao 陈草 very commonplace and earthy, Wang Daqiang 王大强 suitably pompous for the village head, Liu Hongguo 刘洪国 ironically patriotic for the stranger. In addition, the film’s Chinese title, which means the same as the English one, sounds similar to the word for a fool or simpleton, shăguā 傻瓜.
The widescreen photography by Zhao Long 赵龙 is very different from his realistic, handheld work on Gao’s Witness and subtly suspenseful imagery for the coming-of-age drama What’s in the Darkness 黑处有什么 (Wang Yichun 王一淳, 2015): as well as the ever-present heat, Zhao’s immaculate compositions underline the artificial, almost theatrical setting, without getting in the way of the dialogue or performances. The miniature set of the melon stall by art director Li Jianing 李佳宁 also has a theatre-like feel.
Presented by Beijing New Power Film & TV Culture (CN), Jiabo Culture Development (CN), Beijing Two Koala Culture Media (CN), Heyi Capital (CN).
Script: Gao Zehao. Short story: Dong Libo. Photography: Zhao Long. Editing: uncredited. Music: uncredited. Art direction: Li Jianing. Sound: Dong Shilong, Liu Tao. Executive direction: Liu Xin.
Cast: Dong Yong (Chen Cao), Liu Hua (Wang Daqiang, village head), Hu Ming (Liu Hongguo), Li Yu (Chen Cao’s wife), Cao Xiwen (TV reporter), Li Zhiwen, Qiu Yanming (policemen), Qi Ji (party secretary), Han Longxuan (county leader).
Premiere: First Film Festival (Competition), Xining, China, 22 Jul 2017.
Release: China, tba.