A road movie is by definition a mixed bag of goods. It can be funny one minute and trite the next, alternately brilliant and awkward, changing nature and tone as it goes along. Zhang Yang's new film may not be an exception to this rule, but there is so much humanity and feeling all through it, that even the unusual premise it uses and a couple of sentimental pitfalls he stumbles into, can't do it any harm.
The story of a construction worker, Zhao, who has pledged to bring the body of his dead friend, Wang, back home to his family, covers a lot of ground in its 97 minutes, parlaying its way effortlessly from slapstick to melodrama and back, with the considerable assistance of comic Zhao BenShan, who valiantly resists the inevitable temptation of hamming it up.
A heartwarming, easily watchable picture, it should go down as well as some of Zhang's previous work (Shower, Sunflower), with both festivals and savvy distributors.
In the spirit of Chinese wisdom which believes the road between two points is more significant than the points themselves, Zhang picks up Zhao and his dead buddy as they are already on their way, and leaves them just before they reach their final destination.
Forensic institutes might have a problem with the state of Wang's body as it is being dragged along in the most insalubrious manner and even Zhang feels the need to address it fleetingly, but ultimately, this is a technicality which doesn't matter that much.
The main thing is to watch closely the human parade crossing the field of the camera, as the unlikely couple make their improbable way from the big city to the countryside, moving from a bus to a truck, then a cart, later to the inside of a huge tire, and so on. For most of the time, however, Zhao carries his pal on his back, as one car after another passes him along the way but never stop.
Funny, sharp and well observed satire alternates with moving moments, as Zhang displays his capacity to control a scene and change its tone in the middle. He does it with a bus being robbed in the middle of the nowhere and the robbery ending in the most unlikely manner, he does it again with a funeral scene unexpectedly twisted around.
He is at home with visual comedy, like chasing body-carrying tire downhill in the best Buster Keaton fashion but also knows how to pinch the heartstrings, when he introduces a couple of beekeepers met on the way.
The hysterical truck driver raving at the girl who has left him, or the scavenger mom giving her son an academic education despite his refusing to see her, have a distinct soap operatic flavor. Patriotic songs aired with some breathtaking scenery in the background may be a bit too much, and using the Three Gorges, which is about to become not only the largest energy plant in the world, but also a symbol of annihilating the past (Zhe Jiangke's Venice winner 'Still Life', was all about that), seems a bit too handy.
But, as Zhang would probably put it, these are just details in a long journey. The film is handsomely shot by Lai Yiu Fai (One Last Dance, Infernal Affairs) and Yu Lik Wai (Zhe Jiangke's regular DoP), and cut by Yang Hongyu who efficiently crammed into it far more than most films manage to cope with in double the time.
Zhao Benshan blends sentiment and humour without missing a beat, and a solid supporting cast to boot, Zhang can pat himself on the shoulder. His film is one of the most enjoyable to be shown at the Berlinale this year.
Filmko Entertainment Ltd.
Yu Lik Wai
Lai Yiu Fai