China, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 85 mins.
Director: Deng Yongxing 邓勇星.
Modest but involving drama of migrant workers in Shanghai blends Taiwan and Mainland talent.
Shanghai, the present day. After spending two years in Shenzhen on a failed clothing enterprise, Cai Li (Qin Hailu), a migrant worker from Fuyang municipality, Anhui province, returns to Shanghai and stays with Xie Qin (Tang Qun), an older woman from her hometown. She also hooks up again with hustler Gouzi (Li Binbin), who has occasional sex with Xie Qin, and with his friend Jiuzi (Shen Yiqun), a mute retard. Gouzi has a plan to use a rickety old stolen bus to take women from Fuyang back home for New Year, and gets Cai Li to help him sell seats in return for a cut of the income. One day Cai Li finds her RMB2,000 savings and mobile phone have been stolen from her lodgings, though Xie Qin makes up the shortfall to keep her happy. As the day of departure looms, Cai Li has to decide whether she’ll return home or not.
It’s been a long time between movies for writer-director Deng Yongxing 邓勇星, whose first feature, the needlessly slow and over-mannered Love at 7-11 7-11之恋 (2002), played a few festivals but not much else. Best known in his native Taiwan as a commercials director, Deng returns with an intriguing second feature – Mainland-funded, entirely set in Shanghai with Mainland actors, but with Taiwan talent behind the camera – that has a stong directorial signature but one that is at the service of the movie rather than the film-maker himself. Though the realistic, chiaroscuro look, especially in interiors, could be said to show the influence of Taiwan producer Hou Xiaoxian 侯孝贤, it could equally be said to reflect that of more independent Mainland movies, nicely blurring the traditional lines between the two film-making industries and reflecting the gradual evolution of a Greater China industry without barriers.
Though the subject is quite downbeat – migrant workers from Anhui province arrange a bus to go home – and Shanghai is given a very different face, as almost a medium-sized, rather grungy city, Return Ticket 到阜阳六百里 accurately portrays the city’s semi-underbelly as a magnet for provincial labour whose emotional roots still remain in their hometown. Set during the wintry run-up to New Year, when Chinese traditionally visit their hometowns, the movie is low-key but not bleak, realistic but not depressing, with vividly etched performances by its cast and an underlying warmth. Its elliptical style sometimes results in a lack of narrative clarity (one young woman’s story is not at all clear) but the overall dramatic arc, founded on a fine performance from actress Qin Hailu 秦海璐, is strong enough to support the tight running-time.
Following The Piano in a Factory 钢的琴 (2010), on which she took an executive producer credit, the film marks another strong recent role for the distinctive-looking Qin, 33, who made a strong impression a decade ago in her debut, Durian Durian 榴梿飘飘 (2000) by Chen Guo 陈果 [Fruit Chan], but whose career wandered thereafter. Billed here as one of the five co-writers, Qin is totally believable as a bottom-line provincial woman who becomes inveigled in a barely legal scheme to bus home a group of fellow workers from Fuyang city and survives despite several setbacks. Other roles, especially the landlady of singer-actress Tang Qun 唐群 and streetwise hustler of theatre-TV actor Li Binbin 李彬彬, have a ring of truth that helps create a realistic environment for the slim story, though the inclusion of a mute retard among the community is a bit cliched.
A final intertitle detailing the travellers’ experiences has enough material for almost another movie (or at least a continuation of the film), which raises the question whether this was originally intended to be shot or was excised in order to keep the focus on the Shanghai mini-community. (The script was inspired by true events of 2008.) The Chinese title means “600 Li to Fuyang”, referring to the underlying theme of the pull of one’s hometown however far one is away.
Produced by Shanghai Yuancun Film Productions (CN), THW Creative Production (CN).
Script: Yang Nanqian, Qin Hailu, Deng Yongxing, Ge Wenzhe, Xi Ran. Photography: Xia Shaoyu. Editing: Liao Qingsong. Music: Shenbaise [Deep White]. Production design: Xia Shaoyu. Art direction: Huang Weijing. Sound: Yu Yibin, Du Duzhi.
Cast: Qin Hailu (Cai Li), Tang Qun (Xie Qin), Li Binbin (Gouzi), Shen Yiquan (Jiuzi), Fang Xiaoyue (Xiaoyue), Huang Ling (Xiaohong), Dong Wenjun (tough guy), Zhou Yilun (Zhang), Shi Guiying (Auntie Xu), Yuan Guiyu (Auntie Yuan).
Premiere: Hong Kong Film Festival (Taiwanese Cinema Returns), 22 Mar 2011.
Release: China, tba.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 27 Jun 2011.)