China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 96 mins.
Director: Zhu Minjiang 朱敏江.
Island mystery is an interesting calling-card for a first-time director.
Jiangsu province, southern China, the present day. On 15 Oct, after depositing the funerary urn of his professor father, Gu Daqing (Feng Dalu), who died of a sudden heart attack, Gu Jie (Yu Xiaowei) receives a phone call from a stranger telling him the urn has just been stolen and to “remember the 19th.” After his car is hit by a lorry, Gu Jie wakes up on the 16th on the seashore of an island, where he finds a kidnapped girl tied up nearby. The girl’s father, Jia Kuan (Li Hongquan), arrives and tells him to leave the island. In his pocket, Gu Jie finds a key to Room 327 of Shun Lai Hotel. After meeting a girl, Na’na (Wu Nanxi), who has a heart condition and whom his father once treated, Gu Jie goes to the decrepit hotel and checks into the room, where he finds an animal head in the bed and an old photo of a boy. “Welcome to the game,” says the mysterious phone caller. Gu Jie meets some locals, including barber Yan (Luo Jiaying) and the mute Li Chun (Qiao Renliang), and has dinner at the home of Nana and her mother, Yu Zhi (Wu Junmei). He discovers the photo is of Niu San (Guo Yiwen) who was once accused of raping Yu Zhi 20 years ago and then committed suicide. The locals claim his ghost is haunting the village but, as Gu Jie is to painfully discover over the next few days, the truth is not so simple.
A psychodrama-cum-murder mystery that starts impressively but weakens its hold in the final half hour as atmosphere has to yield to plotting, To Forgive 查无此人 is a well-mounted thriller that’s a promising genre calling-card by first-time feature-maker Zhu Minjiang 朱敏江, a Central Academy of Drama graduate who previously worked on the script of Shi Qi 十七 (2008, aka Seventeen), an interesting ethnic drama by young Shanghai director Ji Cheng 姬诚 starring Chen Chong 陈冲 [Joan Chen]. Set in Zhu’s native province of Jiangsu, and with a strong cast including Wu Junmei 邬君梅 [Vivian Wu], Yu Xiaowei 于小伟 (Peacock 孔雀, 2005; The Promise 无极, 2005), idol singer-actor Qiao Renliang 乔任梁 (One Night in Supermarket 夜•店, 2009; 11 Flowers 我11, 2012) and Hong Kong veteran Luo Jiaying 罗家英 [Law Kar-ying], the movie starts as an elaborate game centred on the son of a medical professor whose father has just died and then morphs into a whodunit set on an island that’s haunted by a crime committed 20 years earlier.
Now in her mid-40s, Wu is initially almost unrecognisable as a dowdy villager whose past holds the key to the mystery, but comes more into her own during the second half. Qiao has a low-key but pivotal role, reasonably played, but the film belongs to Yu, who’s on screen almost the whole time as the protagonist who may even be dreaming the whole thing. Largely a TV-drama actor, Yu cuts a strong figure on the big screen and manages some characterisation in between looking permanently baffled.
As a dialogue writer, Zhu shows no special flair, though as a director he’s very much in charge and shows a good eye for both interior design (such as a decrepit old hotel) and physical setpieces. The very theatrical finale, set in a swinging container, isn’t quite as thrilling as it should be, though that may be due to budget constraints. With much of the movie set at night, the atmospheric photography by newcomer Han Qiming 韩淇名 is a consistent help, as well as the moody score by Malaysian-born composer-producer-songwriter Chen Jun Wu 陈军伍 (especially in the impressive opening). The Chinese title, which is the same as that of the Taiwan mystery-drama Finding Her 查无此人 (2008), directed by Zheng Fenfen 郑芬芬, means “No Such Person”.
Presented by Beijing Big Fish Media (CN), World Media Advertising Company Beijing (CN). Produced by Beijing Bigfish Media (CN).
Script: Zhu Minjiang. Photography: Han Qiming. Editing: Wu Yixiang. Music: Chen Jun Wu. Art direction: Liu Qiang. Costumes: Wang Tao. Sound: Zhang Yang. Action: Yang Chongyu. Visual effects: A Donglin.
Cast: Yu Xiaowei (Gu Jie), Wu Junmei [Vivian Wu] (Yu Zhi), Qiao Renliang (Li Chun), Luo Jiaying [Law Kar-ying] (Yan, barber), Liu Nanxi (Na’na, Yu Zhi’s daughter), Li Hongquan (Jia Kuan, father of kidnapped girl), Zhou Zhonghe (Lai Weihou), Wang Yongquan (old man with artificial eye), Bai Jinbo (crazy guy), Guo Yiwen (Niu San), Feng Dalu (Gu Daqing, Gu Jie’s father), Zhang Ying (Xiaobing).
Premiere: Beijing College Student Film Festival, 11 Apr 2012.
Release: China, 15 Jun 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 5 Jul 2012.)