China, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 98 mins.
Director: Wu Lin 吴林.
A well-crafted time-travelling action-comedy that needed bigger names to provide some oomph.
Sydney, Australia, the present day. Zhou Xiaoyi (Zhang Yishan), spoiled son of a trading-company president, has spent 10 years supposedly studying abroad but actually just drinking, chasing girls and playing videogames, especially one set during the chaotic Spring & Autumn Period some 2,500 years ago. When his father dies, Zhou Xiaoyi is forced to return home to China, but says he’s not interested in taking over the family busines and only wants the supply of money to continue so he can indulge himself. After a huge bender with his best friend Hammer (He Yunwei), both wake up in a brothel in Sanchuan kingdom 三川国 during the Spring & Autumn Period. Realising they have somehow time-travelled, they find themselves in the middle of a war involving the barbarian Quanrong 犬戎. Zhou Xiaoyi is mistaken for a Sanchuan general and, when asked for orders during a battle in the port, treats it like a videogame. Escaping into town, Zhou Xiaoyi and Hammer learn how the Quanrong first conquered Sanchuan five years earlier, stationed troops there, and allowed the king and his 16-year-old daughter, Yu Zheng (Bak Ha-seon), to stay on as puppet-rulers. Zhou Xiaoyi is then mistaken by a Quanrong general, Langya (Shi Zhaoqi), for Hupo, the so-called Young Master of Yingmen and saviour of Sanchuan. Despite vigorous denials, Zhou Xiaoyi is arrested; en route to jail, he sees Yu Zheng, now 21, and falls for her. Next day, on the way to execution, he and Hammer are rescued by her and taken to her official residence. She thinks he is Hupo, who was her onetime lover. When Langya besieges her mansion, Yu Zheng has Zhou Xiaoyi and Hammer smuggled out; later, she takes Zhou Xiaoyi to a white-haired elder (Xie Yuan) to learn some martial arts. On their return, however, they’re captured by Langya, who takes them to Shuxiang (Xu Shaoqiang), the Quanrong’s high priest, who announces that in three days he’ll return to marry Yu Zheng.
In many respects Escape Route 夺路而逃 is a well-crafted piece of entertainment that many, more steroidal directors would do well to study. An action-comedy in which a businessman’s spoiled son finds himself transported back to Ancient China with his best pal, it’s agreeably lit, compactly staged and directed, well cast and scored, smoothly edited, has a plot that keeps moving, dialogue that’s amusing, and performances that are all in tune around the comic lead, Zhang Yishan 张一山. But those qualities are also its problem: enjoyable as the film is, it lacks real oomph and never really strikes any special sparks. A big-name cast, and with everything punched up just a notch, would have solved the problem. It’s the kind of nice, solid film that gets lost in today’s market, and despite being jazzed up with 3-D it sank without trace, grossing a puny RMB2.5 million.
It’s the second feature by Wu Lin 吴林, a CCTV and music-video director in his mid-50s who debuted with the interesting but uneven portmanteau film I Believe 爱别离 (2013; aka Love Distance). Scripted by Ba Lifen 巴莉芬, 54, who followed her mother into film distribution and is head of producer Henan Sanchuan Film, the film centres on a time-travel idea that’s hardly original (Royal Treasure 极限挑战 皇家宝藏, 2016; The Warriors Gate 勇士之门, 2016) but does provide a convenient platform for Zhang’s straightfaced performance. Looking here a bit like a modern-day version of effete Hong Kong actor Wei Ping’ao 魏平澳, Zhang, 24, who almost stole the show as the love rival in Bruce Lee My Brother 李小龙 (2010), is especially good at being a louche, hopeless brat as he’s whisked back 2,500 years into the middle of a war between Han Chinese and Quanrong barbarians and finds himself mistaken for various warriors and lovers. One funny idea, where he uses his videogame skills when pretending to be a general, is almost thrown away; but Zhang sustains the film’s light comic tone and has good chemistry with the whole cast without standing out in any way.
Making her debut in a Chinese film, South Korea’s Bak Ha-seon 박하선 | 朴河宣 (I Came from Busan 영도 다리 위, 2010) fits in seamlessly, if rather blandly, as an ancient princess-cum-love interest, and her re-voicing is not too obvious. The real acting meat is largely given to others, including stand-up comedian He Yunwei 何云伟 as the hero’s dumbo pal, Shi Zhaoqi 石兆琪 as a snarling barbarian general, Xu Shaoqiang 徐少强 as an evil high priest, and Xie Yuan 谢园 as a white-haired, martial-arts sage. Only in the final few minutes, where there’s an unlikely twist and the film hammers home its layabout-grows-up message, does Escape Route lose its sure footing. The Chinese title roughly means “Hit the Road and Run”.
Presented by Henan Sanchuan Film (CN). Produced by Henan Sanchuan Film (CN).
Script: Ba Lifen. Photography: Chen Lin. Editing: Cui Dehua, Chen Huilun, Wu Shanjun. Music: Ding Ning, Zhang Mengmeng. Art direction: Wang Yugang. Costume design: Wang Jing. Styling: Yang Shuyun. Sound: Kang Weidong. Action: Lan Haihan. Martial arts: Wu Yingcai. Visual effects: Chen Yi (Timeaxis [Hangzhou] Digital Graphics). Executive direction: Geng Mingji. Video direction: Lv Lingfeng. 3-D: Shi Haixin.
Cast: Zhang Yishan (Zhou Xiaoyi), Bak Ha-seon (Yu Zheng, princess; Qianqian, Zhou Xiaoyi’s former girlfriend), He Yunwei (Tiechui/Hammer), Shi Zhaoqi (Langya, Quanrong general), Huang Yue (Wei Li, Sanchuan commander), Fang Chengcheng (Xiu’er, princess’ female bodyguard), Xu Shaoqiang (Shuxiang, Quanrong head priest), Xie Yuan (white-haired elder), Guo Kaimin (Yu Lv), Li Zixiong (Li), Ba Duo (mute servant), Li Jing (Bag of Bones), Lan Manyu (Hongying, princess’ handmaiden), Zhou Xiaowei (Zhong Lian), Ma Jian (Kuo Yuan), Wang Congyi (Shentu, princess’ male bodyguard), Li Na (Hu woman).
Release: China, 11 Nov 2016.