Welcome to Shamatown
China, 2010, colour, 2.35:1, 103 mins.
Director: Li Weiran 李蔚然.
Goofy treasure-hunt comedy, set in a desert town, is a cross between Crazy Stone and A Simple Noodle Story.
A desert in Gansu province, northwest China, 1931. Legendary bandit Hu Shuanzi (Sun Honglei) appears with some ancient artifacts that provide clues to some buried treasure. In 2006, Tang Gaopeng (Sun Honglei), the ambitious mayor of Gansu’s Shama township, takes the artifacts on a TV antiques show, where the panel dismisses his find as valueless. However, Tang Gaopeng, desperate to turn his “bandit town” into a holiday attraction, bribes a TV journalist, Cui Ba (Yue Xiaojun), to come back with him and publicise the discovery of the buried treaure. Meanwhile, one of the panelists has alerted crooked Taiwan American art collector Zhou Dingbang (Li Liqun), who soon descends on the village along with other dubious types. The inhabitants, including Tang Gaopeng’s girlfriend, restaurateur Chun (Lin Zhiling), are dubious about Tang Gaopeng’s latest promises to turn the dusty backwater into a boomtown. But soon, treasure-hunting fever grips the whole community.
Essentially another broad comedy about get-rich-quick fever in modern-day China, Welcome to Shamatown 决战刹马镇 brings together a strong team of character actors (China’s Sun Honglei 孙红雷, Taiwan’s Li Liqun 李立群), some spectacular desert scenery in Gansu province, and a plot based on the hot topic of antiquities looting, but loses its direction about halfway in too much slapstick humour and not enough character development or memorable setpieces. As everyone starts hoodwinking everyone else, and the not-so-stupid locals join in the fun, the film piles up references to earlier films like Crazy Stone 疯狂的石头 (2006) and A Simple Noodle Story 三枪拍案惊奇 (2009) – in which Sun played the local law officer – as well as hitching a ride on China’s current fad for desert-set movies.
But for all the dry northern humour, and the cast working overtime to keep the story moving, it’s the widescreen photography around Jingtai by Zhao Xiaoding 赵小丁 (regular d.p. for director Zhang Yimou 张艺谋, including on the recent Noodle Story) that’s most memorable at the end of the day. Sun is fine as the ambitious smalltown mayor who’s not quite smart enough, and Li, adopting a heavy Taiwan American accent, plays the role of the greedy villain for all it’s worth. But Taiwan supermodel/actress Lin Zhiling 林志玲 (Red Cliff 赤壁, 2008), playing down her accent in favour of a rougher northern Chinese one, and hiding her looks and figure under ruddy cheeks and dumpy clothes, doesn’t get much of a role to justify her second billing. Though the film is pleasant enough entertainment, and directed okay by first-timer Li Weiran 李蔚然 (from commercials), it has a very familiar feel in its character types and plot. And the finale, centred on a Tomato Festival in which the bad guys are pelted by the villagers, is just a little too silly to provide a satisfying climax.
Presented by LeTV Entertaiment (CN), Shanghai Dongfang Entertainment (CN). Produced by LeTV Entertainment (CN).
Script: Zhou Zhiyong, Li Weiran. Photography: Zhao Xiaoding. Editing: Guo Boxu. Music: Dong Dongdong. Art direction: Cui Tao. Sound: Zhou Lei. Visual effects: Wu Fenglin.
Cast: Sun Honglei (Tang Gaopeng, village mayor; Hu Shuanzi, bandit), Lin Zhiling (Chun/Spring), Li Liqun (Zhou Dingbang, art collector), Ma Jian (Guizhong, giant), Gan Wei (Taohua), Xie Yuan (Mianbing/Bread), Ma Delin (Da Pao, bully brother), Huang Haibo (Boss Mao), Zhao Ziqi (female TV reporter), Zhou Weitong (woman in black), Sui Kai [Michael Sui] (Little P), Ma Li (Mianbing’s wife), Cao Bingkun (Chen Dili), Yue Xiaojun (Cui Ba, TV reporter), Zhang Zidong (Touji/Lazybones), Bao Bei’er (village idiot), Fan Qi (TV cameraman).
Release: China, 22 Jun 2010.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 29 Jun 2010.)