Dienstag, 17. Februar 2015

Berlinale: 一步之遙 (Gone with the Bullets) / 醉.生夢死 (Thanatos, Drunk)

(Originally appeared in EXBERLINER on Feb. 11, 2015)

To be fair, a high-minded film festival like the Berlinale is scarcely the right place to launch a movie like Chinese competition entry "一步之遙 (Gone with the Bullets)". Its broad humor and mainstream sensibility are strictly targeted at the multiplex-goers, however insulting that might be to the intelligence of the film-consuming public.

Set in early 20th century Shanghai, the story starts with a money-laundering scheme in the form of a global escort competition. Glitzy song-and-dance numbers pile on one another before the awkward crowning of the best working girl in the world. What happens next just keeps topping your expectations of the least plausible and most cringe-worthy development possible, all written with breathtakingly bad humor and virtually zero sense of timing. It's essentially a parade of failed gags that proves tortuously unfunny and misfires in every way.

Celebrated director Jiang Wen made a name for himself by telling gritty tales of survival and human endurance ("鬼子來了 (Devils on the Doorstep)", 2000). Though he made an evident adjustment toward populist entertainment with his last movie "讓子彈飛 (Let the Bullets Fly)" (2010) – the spiritual prequel to this unqualified disaster – at least his directorial ambition and signature style remained intact. In this case his foray into the slapstick appears to be so misguided as to render him completely paralyzed. The embarrassing writing aside, the direction has no pulse or spark. The performances from the cast, which includes Jiang himself and long-time collaborator Ge You, are equally uninspired. The production design, which manages to make every automobile, house facade and street lamp look fake, and the costume design, which is low on texture and high on vulgar colors, give the obviously costly production a decidedly cheap look.    

Vision-less, art-less and tasteless, this is a catastrophe of monumental proportions that ensures the Golden Bear won't go to China two years in a row.

Across the Taiwan strait, there's no merriment insight in director Chang Tso-Chi's Taipei-set "醉.生夢死 (Thanatos, Drunk)". Screening in Panorama, the drama begins on a pretty suicidal note and ends in an even sadder place. Which is not surprising considering Chang's illustrious but consistently dark filmography. Only this time around the film itself is a lot less skillfully crafted and the moaning rarely feels justified.

Either jobless or working in the sex industry, all the main characters lead a somewhat marginalized existence. The young-ish Rat helps out at a vegetables stand to earn a few extra bucks but mostly just hangs around playing with ants or messing with the wrong kinds of people. His overachiever brother Shuo returns from the US seemingly unable to find professional or emotional fulfillment and jobs as a go-go dancer in the evening. Since the tragic death of their mother, the two have become estranged and have nothing left for each other but blame. As their affinity to another man from the red-light milieu deepens, more misfortunes follow.

The script is loosely structured, drifting from one incident to another with less elasticity than a simple lack of premeditation. Outbursts of rage, acts of debauchery, bouts of violence pepper the proceedings but seldom leave an impact in the absence of a sensible context. Ever the master of bleak, hopeless aesthetics, Chang shows in a couple of scenes that he can still make a lot out of very little. A dialogue-free sequence early on features images simmering with a yellowish sheen while some sorrowful jazz plays in the background. It's a lovely interruption whose poetry in design and execution is not repeated elsewhere in the film.

Acting-wise there's also little to salvage the movie. The three male leads don't have the charisma to sustain an underdeveloped screenplay. Supporting actress Lu Hsueh-Feng, who plays the alcoholic mother with tremendous authenticity and empathy, is the only highlight, but her role is too limited to really help matters much.

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