Red Light Revolution
Australia, 2010, colour, 16:9, 90 mins.
Director: Sam Voutas 司马优.
Light character comedy centred on a Beijing sex shop transcends its modest budget on all levels.
Beijing, the present day. On the same day he’s sacked from his job as a taxi driver, Wang Shunzi (Zhao Jun) discovers his wife (Tess Liu) has a lover and is kicked out of the home she owns. Staying with his parents (Tian Huimin, Ji Qin), Wang Shunzi gets work promoting goods in a supermarket, where he meets Lili (Wang Weiwei), also doing the same job. He also bumps into old high-school friend Jiang (Jiang Xiduo) who made his money selling sex toys before becoming an event manager. Jiang suggests Wang Shunzi does the same, and introduces him to a Japanese investor-cum-wannabe-artist, Iggy (Otsuka Masanobu). When Lili says her grandmother has an empty backstreets shop he can use for nothing, Wang Shunzi decides to go ahead, in the hope of becoming rich and winning his wife back. However, he doesn’t tell his conservative parents exactly what he’s selling, and in the rush forgets to apply for the shop licence. Meanwhile, Iggy wants a minimum of RMB10,000 a week in return for his start-up loan, otherwise he’ll break Wang Shunzi’s legs.
Working with regular producing partner Melanie Ansley (a part-Chinese Canadian), Greek Australian director Sam Voutas (scifi thriller Crash Test, 2004) fruitfully mines his Beijing-nurtured, Mandarin-speaking roots for his second feature, Red Light Revolution 红灯梦, a light character comedy centred on a local loafer who opens a sex-toy shop. Made with an all-Chinese cast – apart from Voutas in a cameo – the movie economically breathes backstreets Beijing in a way unequalled by any non-Chinese film-maker, while maintaining a fanciful comic tone and avoiding an unnecessarily grungy look. Basically, if the name of Voutas (known as Sima You 司马优 in China) wasn’t on the credits, you’d never know this was made by a westerner.
Mirroring Voutas’ parallel experience in acting (City of Life and Death 南京！南京！, 2009; Gasp 气喘吁吁, 2009), cinematography (Macau-set Roulette City 轮盘, 2012) and documentaries (Shanghai Bride, 2006), Revolution has an unforced visual style – by first-time feature d.p. Wang Yifan 王一凡 – that throws all the emphasis on the performances. For a lowbudget, indie production, actors are uncommonly well cast at every level, with engaging leads in theatre actor Zhao Jun 赵骏 and newcomer Wang Weiwei 王为伟 against a flavoursome background of oldie hutong characters, such as the nosy neighbourhood watch of Bo Bing 薄冰 and the lead’s naggy parents played by Tian Huimin 田惠民 and Ji Qin 季勤.
Though sex-toy shops are now an entrenched part of urban life in China – which, according to the film, also manufactures 70% of the world’s supply – Voutas avoids an overt sit-com style, instead drawing sympathetic characters who are either just making a living or clandestinely going about their (sex) lives. Some of the comedy is dependent on the novelty of seeing Mainland characters larking around with sex aids; but it’s never a major part of the movie, and on two occasions Voutas playfully inserts “the next shot has been cut” cards.
Zhao and Wang’s central chemistry sets just the right tone of knowing satire, with the former equally good at physical as well as verbal comedy. The film loses a little dramatic traction prior to the finale but otherwise maintains a smoothly edited tempo. The Chinese title literally means “Red Light Dreams”, a play on the title of classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber 红楼梦 that provokes one of the film’s funniest throwaway lines.
Produced by Scopofile (AU).
Script: Sam Voutas. Photography: Wang Yifan. Editing: Sam Voutas. Art direction: Yuan Feng. Costumes: Wei Xiaoyan. Sound: Jules Ambroisine.
Cast: Zhao Jun (Wang Shunzi), Wang Weiwei (Lili), Jiang Xiduo (Jiang, Wang Shunzi’s old schoolfriend), Otsuka Masanobu (Iggy), Tess Liu (Wang Shunzi’s wife), Tian Huimin (Wang Shunzi’s father), Ji Qin (Wang Shunzi’s mother), Bo Bing (Qu), Chen Weijing (Shouzi/Skinny), Yao Jianxiong (old man), Tao Yangyang (sign-shop boss), Wang Liansheng (old gentleman), Song Siwei (old woman), Zhang Wenzheng (Li, teacher), Guo Lianjie (Puyi), Li Peng (funeral-money seller), Jing Minqiang (Liu, taxi-company boss), Sam Voutas (Jack Deroux, Australian businessman), Wang Yifan (tour guide), Kang Xueqing (Summer), Ren Shiqiang (Fred), Zeng Pijin (waitress).
Premiere: San Paulo Film Festival, 24 Oct 2010.
Release: Australia, tba.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 27 Aug 2011.)