Design of Death
China/Taiwan, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 107 mins.
Director: Guan Hu 管虎.
Boisterous black village comedy is flawed by a weak structure and lack of a strong central core.
Southwest China, early 1940s. In the mountain roads near the remote township of Long Life, a man, Niu Jieshi (Huang Bo), is beaten in a sack and tossed into a gorge. Miraculously still alive, he’s rescued by two men on a motorbike, including a doctor (Ren Dahua). Niu Jieshi returns to Long Life, where the locals make it clear he’s not welcome; they’re also busy caring for “great-great-grandfather”, who is almost 120 and about to set a new record in a town famous for its inhabitants’ longevity. As Niu Jieshi is beaten up, an earth tremor dislodges part of a neighbouring mountain. Thirteen months later, the same doctor is sent to Long Life to ensure that a disease reported there doesn’t spread and tarnish the town’s reputation. He finds Niu Jieshi close to death from (according to the locals) a fatal disease, and carries him ito the mountains, where he examines him. Finding nothing wrong with him physically, the doctor returns to Long Life to find out how he died. He discovers that Niu Jieshi, the son of an itinerant peddlar who stayed on and adopted the name of the township’s ruling Niu clan, was a law unto himself, followed none of the accepted rules and traditions, and was immune to physical violence. After Niu Jieshi had an affaire with a young widow, Ma (Yu Nan), and caused further social disorder by releasing an aphrodisiac into the water supply, the mayor (Ma Jingwu) decided that somehow Niu Jieshi had to be got rid of permanently. He decided to call in a young doctor, Niu (Su Youpeng), who had been away studying in the West, to help, and a deadly plan was hatched.
After their lusty, dusty, black village comedy Cow 斗牛 (2009), comedian Huang Bo 黄渤 (Crazy Stone 疯狂的石头, 2006) and writer-director Guan Hu 管虎 re-unite in Design of Death 杀生, also set in a remote stone village and played in a thick regional dialect but this time located in the southern province of Sichuan rather than the northern wastes of Shandong. In fact, the switch from north to south hardly matters as, with Huang and Guan in charge, the movie is still very “northern” in feel, with its gruff humour and rough physical antics. With Hong Kong’s Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam] and Taiwan actor-singer Su Youpeng 苏有朋 [Alec Su] (best known for his TV dramas) among the strong cast, this is pitched less at the arty market than Cow. The film’s main problem, however, is that, despite its flashier production values and knockabout humour, it’s still specialist fare and, like Cow, at least 15 minutes too long.
Guan, who makes successful TV dramas for a living and movies from a personal need, remains one of China’s most inventive writers. Starting with a bang and working itself up to a major cataclysm, the opening of Death is gripping stuff, with the seeds of a whole story laid out in a mere seven minutes. After flashing forward 13 months, the film then paints in the missing pieces, mixing a howdunit murder investigation by a doctor (Ren in a long wig) with flashbacks to the intervening period. Though the story is full of boisterous peasant humour and keeps moving, the doctor’s thread becomes sidelined by the rough-and-tumble flashbacks, unbalancing the structure and burying the central mystery (a particularly clever crime that’s hardly realist to begin with). With more emphasis on Ren’s role, the movie would have had a sronger framework; instead, after a strong first hour, it starts to go round in circles dramatically during the second half.
Freely adapted from a 1998 novella by Chen Tiejun 陈铁军, a Beijing-born writer of the Manchurian Xibe ethnic group, Design has been a project of Guan’s since 2005, and proved particularly hard to adapt, given its lack of straightforward plot and snippets of reported dialogue. His solution was to stress elements in common with the writings of Lu Xun 鲁迅, especially A Madman’s Diary 狂人日记 – the idiot savant who doesn’t fit into a community’s social and belief structure and is outlawed (or worse) as a result. Though the film is set in the early 1940s, prior to the PRC, it has strong parallels with early PRC movies – the struggle against superstition and tradition – as well as with classic literature. Huang’s invincible village sprite, Niu Jieshi, is, in fact, a 20th-century Monkey King, apparently indestructible, gleefully causing chaos wherever he goes, and constituting a threat to the ruling establishment. The villagers’ solution, initiated by a young doctor trained in western medecine, is to kill him using psychology rather than brute force.
Though the central “plot” is actually very simple, the film as a whole is a rich soup of ideas and metaphors. But the over-emphasis on Niu Jieshi’s pranks turns it into a lengthy showcase for Huang’s physical comedy that becomes unproductive across two hours. Other actors are largely bystanders: Yu Nan 余男 is okay as a mute widow who falls for him, but is limited by her absence of dialogue; Ren largely grins enigmatically under his tresses; and Su is smart and menacing but builds no sustained battle-of-wits with Ren’s investigating doctor. Supporting roles are colourful: Guan’s striking actress wife, Liang Jing 梁静 (a TV drama regular), unrecognisable here as a toothy midwife harpy, and veteran Ma Jingwu 马精武 coolly ruthless as the township’s mayor.
The film has plenty of incident and character, but built round a very small core that becomes especially noticeable in the second half. Technically, it’s very busy, with clean, swooping camerawork by Song Xiaofei 宋晓飞 (Cow), okay visual effects, some visually striking setpieces involving the black-hooded villagers’ rituals, and a fascination with early-20th century technology. For some unexplained reason, the main titles credit the film as based on a novella called Design of Death 设计死亡, which doesn’t actually exist. In fact, the source is Chen’s novella 儿戏杀人, roughly “Child’s Play Murder”. The movie’s title means “Killing a Living Being”, the first of the five Buddhist no-nos.
The stunning location, which is the movie’s other star besides Huang, is Taoping Qiang Zhai 桃坪羌寨, a 2,000-year-old tribal village of the Qiang ethnic group, northwest of Chengdu, in western Sichuan.
Presented by Stellar Mega Films (CN), Yunnan Film Group (CN), Polyface Entertainment Media (TW), Beijing Spring Film & TV Culture (CN). Produced by Stellar Mega Films (CN), Yunnan Film Group (CN), Beijing Spring Film & TV Culture (CN).
Script: Guan Hu. Novella: Chen Tiejun. Photography: Song Xiaofei. Editor: Tu Yiran. Music: Dou Peng. Song: Dou Peng. Art direction: Lin Mu. Costume design: Lei Yaqi. Sound: Dong Xu. Action: Qing Haiqiang. Choreography: Wu Chentao. Visual effects: Sun Min. Animation: Kong Tao.
Cast: Huang Bo (Niu Jieshi), Yu Nan (Ma, widow), Ren Dahua [Simon Yam] (doctor), Su Youpeng [Alec Su] (Niu, doctor), Ma Jingwu (mayor), Liang Jing (midwife), Wang Xun (Niu, painter), Dai Liren [Leon Dai] (Pork Niu), Huang Xiaolei (dumb girl), Hu Xiaoguang (blacksmith), Feng Guodang (Niu, alchemist), Wang Yaochun (Niu, butcher), Tang Zuohui (great-great-grandfather), Zou Jiahao (Niu, thug), Yu Junlei (Xiaoniu), Chen Wei (Second Auntie), Wang Hu (village idiot), Liu Kai (witch), Li Ping (Cross-Eyes), Li Jing, Fei Zhengxiang (officials), Wang Yanping (Niu, grandfather), Zhang Xiaoxing (Niu, grandmother), Wang Xizhao (young Niu, doctor), Ma Yitao (young Niu Jieshi), Liao Qi (hospital head), Fang Qiang (old drummer), Yang Dawei (uncle), Gao Guorong (old palm-reader), Li Junjie (red-eyed woman), Chen Xue (girl with red ribbon), Yue Han (fat guy).
Release: China, 28 Apr 2012; Taiwan, tba.
(Review originally pubished on Film Business Asia, 9 Jul 2012.)