One of darkest (in all senses: storylines, lighting, much of the music) films yet seen, gives many insights to life in present-day China along with the universal realities of bullying, infidelity, depression, angst and social media “outings”. At nearly four hours, viewers need to invest a considerable chunk of time, but those who do will be richly rewarded if somewhat disturbed at most of the outcomes.
The film is also a precursor to an art-imitates-death scenario: shortly after completion, director-writer-editor Hu Bu committed suicide as if to answer one of film’s important questions “What else can I do?”
After a school bully gets more than his just comeuppance (a relatively simple shove sends him tumbling down a long staircase), Wei Bu’s world turns upside down, defending his best friend who had been accused of stealing his tormentor’s video-jammed cellphone. Peng Yuchang delivers an exceptionally mature performance, especially his ability to use body language and visage to speak volumes without any dialogue. On many, many occasions, Bu invites his audience to feel the emotions of his troubled principals—much of the film is a series of head shots or upper torsos filling the screen, either solo or in gritty, slow-paced dialogue.
It falls to the bully’s brother, Cheng Yu, to mete out justice while his sibling wages the fight of his life in intensive care. Zhang Yu renders his role as semi gangster with quiet understatement but really soars in his scenes with a sometime lover who no longer “feels comfortable.” That rejection (another recurring theme) sends Yu into the bed of a close friend for release and comfort, only to become a found-in, causing the cuckolded husband to save face permanently.
In a living hell relationship/apartment with her single mother (Wing Nang plays the part with exceptional pain, self-loathing and, a second helping of “What else can I do?”), Yang Yuen turns in a gritty performance as favourite pet of her school’s Vice Dean, Huang Ling. After being humiliated for all the world to see, the desolate student erupts into a startling display of anger and contempt. Throughout the film, Hu uses physical objects (a pool cue, baseball bat and shuttlecock), letting these props tell their own stories in the hands of their “players.”
The sage sleeper of the production comes in the stoic form of Li Congxi’s rendition of Grandpa. Faced with eviction from his own apartment by his ungrateful family (save and except for the delightful granddaughter, Kong Yixin), the old man takes it upon himself to tour his potential warehouse: a dilapidated—both physically and in terms of its residents—nursing home. That extended sequence is another very dark cinematic view of misery, accompanied with minimalistic notes and colours, deftly reinforcing the mood thanks to the original score from Lun Hua.
The narrative glue to much of the film is the notion of making the trek to Manzhouli’s zoo where a giant pachyderm can be seen doing nothing. But the real elephant in the room comes from so many characters feeling locked up in their own cages with virtually no way out but accepting their fates, or bidding one last adieu. JWR