The Wasted Times
China/Hong Kong, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 123 mins.
Director: Cheng Er 程耳.
Abstract drama of love and betrayal in period Shanghai establishes director Cheng Er as a major talent.
Shanghai, the eve of the Battle of Shanghai, Aug 1937. Businessman/gang leader Lu (Ge You) has a meeting with Zhou (Zhao Baogang), whom he suspects is behind the strikes that are crippling the city, as well as the kidnapping of over 30 people. Zhou denies it, but finally capitulates and is murdered outside the city by Lu’s bodyguards (Du Jiang, Wang Chuanjun). Lu and fellow “sworn brother” Zhang (Ma Xiaowei) are approached by representatives of the Japanese government and military to set up a joint East Asia Co-Prosperity Bank; Zhang is interested but Lu declines. The Japanese decide Lu must die, and first have his longtime housekeeper (Yan Ni) shot. Another meeting between Lu and the Japanese is arranged at the restaurant of Watanabe (Asano Tadanobu), Lu’s Japanese brother-in-law who has lived in Shanghai for years and completely adopted the Chinese language and culture. A gun battle breaks out, from which Lu and his driver/enforcer (Du Chun) escape, while Watanabe is shot defending Lu. Lu’s entire household and family is massacred; only his two young nephews – Watanabe’s sons – survive. In the street outside, Lu’s virginal younger bodyguard also survives, and visits a prostitute (Huo Siyan), with whom he falls in love. (Three years earlier, Lu had disciplined Xiaoliu [Zhang Ziyi], one of his former mistresses and now the wannabe-actress wife of chief crime lord and fellow “sworn brother” Wang [Ni Dahong], for having affaires so soon after her marriage. He arranged for her to get the lead role in the film Love in Bloom 花好月圆, replacing well-known actress Wu [Yuan Quan], but she started an affaire with her leading man, Zhao [Han Geng]. Wang ordered the film’s negative to be burnt, and Xiaoliu and Zhao to be driven to Suzhou and put on a train north, never to return. Lu assigned Watanabe to the task.) (Sometime earlier, actress Wu had asked the help of Lu in covering up a clumsy affaire by her no-talent actor husband [Lv Xing], and Lu had introduced her to a wealthy businessman friend, Dai. Without Wu’s knowledge, Dai arranged a job for her husband and then had him willingly posted to Yunnan province in the deep south. Wu ended up as Dai’s mistress.) On the eve of the Pacific War, in Dec 1941, Lu is with his two young nephews in Hong Kong, where he reads about his erstwhile “sworn brother” Zhang finally setting up the East Asia Co-Prosperity Bank. With the Japanese about to bomb Hong Kong, Dai arranges a plane to fly Lu to safety in Chongqing, central China, along with Wu. Meanwhile, Lu sends his driver/enforcer to kill Zhang as he secretly leaves Shanghai for Nanjing by train; Lu also asks Xiaowu (Zhong Xintong), a former mistress and now a well-connected socialite in Shanghai, to arrange a pass for his driver into the train station. The assassination ends bloodily. In Aug 1945, while Lu, his nephews and Wu are still in Chongqing, Japan surrenders. Wu is restless and wants to get back to Shanghai. In Sep 1945 Lu finds Xiaoliu in a Shanghai hospice, and unfinished business takes them both, plus Lu’s nephews, to a POW camp in Luzon, the Philippines, the following month.
Strongly cast, boldly staged, and realising on a larger scale the stylistic trademarks of his previous two features, The Wasted Times 罗曼蒂克消亡史 establishes writer-director Cheng Er 程耳, 40, as one of the most consistently original talents in contemporary Mainland cinema, even if it doesn’t quite succeed in all of its ambitions. An epic story of love and betrayal among crime lords and their women in Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s, the movie evokes a whole era in a stylised, intensely cinematic way that’s also a dark, romantic elegy to an already mythologised period of gangsterism, war and glamour in the city’s history. (The Chinese title literally means “A History of Romantic Slow Death”.) Shot from late Oct 2014 to early Feb 2015, and originally to have been released in Oct 2015 as a major national-holiday attraction, it was finally released over a year later against more mainstream attractions like The Great Wall 长城 and grossed only a tame RMB123 million.
Cheng first drew attention in 1999 with Criminal 犯罪分子, his half-hour graduation film at Beijing Film Academy, starring Xu Zheng 徐峥 and Huang Yi 黄奕, about a photographer who stumbles on a large sum of cash he uses to help his sick mother and then has to flee for his life (see poster, left). However, it wasn’t until 2007 that his first feature appeared, the Kammerspiel-like psychodrama Unfinished Girl 第三个人, also starring Xu and giving actress Gao Yuanyuan her first, really remarkable role. Full of twists, and constructed in a time-fractured format, it was something fresh at the time in the Mainland industry, a genre-bender that challenged the viewer in an involving way. Five years later Cheng further upped his game with his second feature, Lethal Hostage 边境风云 (2012), an equally gripping criminal rondo, again strongly cast (Sun Honglei 孙红雷, Ni Dahong 倪大红), that was set on the Burma-China border and staged in a similar highly-controlled, paragraphed way.
The Wasted Times brings this style to fruition on a much bigger stage, again showing Cheng’s ability to breathe life into potentially cut-out characters and produce a work that, for all its artifice, does repay repeated viewings. In fact, Times needs at least two viewings to even understand fully what’s going on: built out of large paragraphs, it plays like a much longer movie that’s been whittled down in post-production, though, despite reports of the original cut being 3½ hours, Cheng has said that only a small portion of the film was excised prior to final release. Whatever the case, and despite all its time-shifts, it does make sense on close examination – though the final half-hour, which backtracks and reveals fresh information before moving to the story’s climax, still feels bitty after the previous hour-and-a-half’s gradual roll-out. More’s the pity, too, that Cheng did not cut a ridiculous speech by a US soldier in the closing section.
In its stylised view of pre-WW2 Shanghai, and its mix of gangsters, moviedom and evil Japanese, the film recalls in various ways others like Purple Butterfly 紫蝴蝶 (2003), Shanghai Rumba 上海伦巴 (2006), Gone with the Bullets 一步之遥 (2014) or One Step Away 触不可及 (2014), especially with actors like Ge You 葛优, Zhang Ziyi 章子怡 and Yuan Quan 袁泉 reappearing here and the director of One Step Away, Zhao Baogang 赵宝刚, even playing a crucial early role. But Cheng takes the stylisation one step further, almost into the realm of the abstract: his Shanghai streets are deserted apart from those characters necessary to the action, most of the film is set in equally empty interiors, and even his period movie references are oblique to the point of jokiness. (One actress says she doesn’t understand her own film, as it was “made for the next century”; another film, which uses the title of a 1935 song, 花好月圆, has its negative burned by a crime lord.) Though several characters appear to be inspired by real people, such as actress Hu Die 蝴蝶 and Shanghai mobsters Du Yuesheng 杜月笙, Huang Jinrong 黄金荣 and Zhang Xiaolin 张啸林, the script careful avoids any direct parallels. (The closest match is between Zhang Xiaolin and the film’s character of “Zhang”, played by Ma Xiaowei 马晓伟.)
Instead, as in his previous films, Cheng creates an alternate reality through a top-notch cast (to whom he gives space to get under the skin of their characters), copious use of local dialect (at least 50% of the dialogue is in Shanghainese), and lots of small details that ring true even in an abstracted setting. In his first appearance since Bullets, and in a rare non-bald role, Ge is superb, dominating the story despite frequent absences with a typically unsmiling, less-is-more performance as ruthless crime lord Lu who finally takes a shocking revenge on the person who ordered his family’s slaughter. He’s run a close second by equally experienced veteran Ni, as Lu’s senior crime lord, and both are given a run for their money by Japan’s Asano Tadanobu 浅野忠信, as Lu’s Nipponese son-in-law who’s completely adopted Chinese culture and even the city’s dialect. It’s debatable whether, in such a period, Asano’s character would have enjoyed such absolute trust by the crime lords, but the actor still carves a powerful, convincing character.
Entering the film fully at the 40-minute mark, Zhang Ziyi looks suitably period-glamorous and generally makes a good showing as the young wannabe-actress wife of Ni’s elderly mobster; but she isn’t quite trashy enough to measure up to the others’ description of her, and thereby give her later scenes (the screenplay’s biggest stretch) the necessary pathos. Though in a smaller role, as a well-known actress with a philandering husband, Yuan is more consistent within her character, and has one remarkable scene with Yan Ni 闫妮 (excellent as Lu’s stroppy housekeeper) that tingles with bitchiness. In a role that appears to have been trimmed, Hong Kong’s Zhong Xintong 钟欣潼 [Gillian Chung] is fine as far as her part goes.
Despite Cheng’s statement that only small cuts were made, several supporting roles still feel underdeveloped. As well as Zhong (whose presence in her final scene is never explained), Lu’s driver-cum-enforcer, taciturnly played by Du Chun 杜淳, seems thinly written, and one powerbroker, Dai, is much talked about but never appears. Hong Kong’s Zhong Hanliang 钟汉良 [Wallace Chung] appears for just a few seconds as a libidinous dance teacher.
Technically, the film soars, from its precisely framed, chiaroscuro visuals by d.p. Du Jie 杜杰 (who co-shot Lethal Hostage), through the taut editing as usual by Cheng himself, to the use of smokey songs and plangent piano music on the soundtrack. The score by Japan’s Umebayashi Shigeru 梅林茂 occasionally becomes too jaggedly hysterical, but it’s a rare fault. In fact, music plays a relatively small role beyond the wordless montages: Cheng can create a gripping sense of foreboding and suppressed violence through dialogue, cutting and performances alone – as in the tense opening inquisition of Zhao’s character by Lu, or several in which people talk about everything but the subject at hand (Lu’s bodyguards discussing sex, the crime lords playing majiang, or Zhang’s actress-wife talking at dinner about her film director). For all its stumbles – largely in the final stretch – The Wasted Times is one of the major accomplishments in Chinese cinema of the past year.
Presented by Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), Emperor Film Production (HK), Huayi Brothers Pictures International (HK), Cutting Edge Pictures (CN). Produced by Cutting Edge Pictures (CN).
Script: Cheng Er. Photography: Du Jie. Editing: Cheng Er. Music: Umebayashi Shigeru. Song music: Guo Sida, Umebayashi Shigeru. Lyrics: Cheng Er, Chen Sheng, Anna Rice. Production design: Han Zhong. Styling: Xi Zhongwen [Yee Chung-man]. Sound: Xu Chen, Wu Na, Jin Lin. Visual effects: Wang Xiaowei, Sun Haidong.
Cast: Ge You (Lu), Zhang Ziyi (Xiaoliu, Wang’s wife), Asano Tadanobu (Watanabe), Du Chun (Lu’s driver/enforcer), Zhong Xintong [Gillian Chung] (Xiaowu, Lu’s mistress), Ni Dahong (Wang, mob boss), Zhao Baogang (Zhou), Yuan Quan (Wu, film actress), Yan Ni (Mama Wang, Lu’s housekeeper), Han Geng (Zhao, film actor), Huo Siyan (prostitute), Du Jiang (Lu’s younger bodyguard), Wang Chuanjun (Lu’s older bodyguard), Lv Xing (Wu’s husband), Zhong Hanliang [Wallace Chung] (Xiaoliu’s dance teacher), Ma Xiaowei (Zhang), Qiao Xiaoxiao, Liu Tianyang (Lu household servant girls), Zhao Haitao (Lu’s son), Ye Mo (Lu’s nephew), Zhou Jingfeng (film director), Yang Lulu (Zhou’s mistress), Matsumine Lilie (Watanabe’s wife, Lu’s younger sister), Ash Gordey (US soldier in Luzon).
Release: China, 16 Dec 2016; Hong Kong, tba.