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Monday, August 31, 2015

Chinese Movie Review - The Continent - 后会无期

I’ve been waiting to watch The Continent for months, ever since I learned that Hanhan (韩寒) had directed a film. Hanhan is the enfant terrible of contemporary Chinese literature which is what led me to buy his seminal work, 三重门 (Triple Door), long before I could ever read it. That novel tells the story of a middle school student dealing with an educational system that curbs the enthusiasm of its students and a country coping with rapid development which is the frequent backdrop of many modern Chinese stories. Hanhan’s novel satirized the society and culture surrounding China’s hardest working citizens, its students. Having read this book, I was hoping that The Continent would entertain but also comment on modern China, what I got was a film that manages to do both but only marginally so.

The story is simple: three men from an underdeveloped island in the east of China have to travel across the mainland (hence The Continent) because one of the men, Jianghe (江河), a schoolteacher, has been transferred to a different school. The other two men on the journey are Haohan (浩汉) and Husheng (胡生), who has some kind of mental disorder. William Feng (冯绍峰) and Chen Bolin (陈柏霖), Haohan and Jianghe respectively, are great as dual protagonists with a difficult friendship. Husheng opens the film with voice over narration which explains that all the inhabitants of the island have moved to the mainland and that Haohan, having left some years before, has just returned to the island only to find out that Jianghe must travel 3000 kilometers to his new job. Haohan vows to see him off. From this opening it appears that Husheng will be the audience’s surrogate as we watch the dynamic unfold between the introverted Jianghe and the self-assured Haohan who boasts that he has friends throughout the country. Thirty minutes into the film, however, Husheng is left behind at a hotel never to be seen again and almost never referenced again. Why was he in the film in the first place? Why the use of voice over narration to introduce information that gets repeated throughout the course of the film?

A country as large and varied as China is perfect for a road film. It would be impossible to watch this film and not think of the American road movie. To that end this film uses some of the classic iconography of the road movie: wayward hotels, mysterious women, hitchhikers. Unfortunately these genre conventions are lost amidst the pace of the film which is at once too fast and too slow. The sequence with the mysterious woman, Sumi (苏米), develops at lightning speed: A prostitute (actually a desperate pregnant woman that may or may not be a prostitute) knocks on the door of their hotel room, Jianghe falls in love with her within minutes, the police come to the door, they escape out of a window with Haohan forgetting Husheng who went out to smoke, they run from Sumi’s family and the police and the next day at a gas station they are discovered by Sumi’s family. Sumi’s entire storyline is 10 minutes long and feels like an interesting and compelling movie was jammed inside of another movie.

On the other hand, Sumi’s quick entrance and exit certainly toy with the audience’s expectations and her final scene is the best of the film owing to a cameo by contemporary China’s most important filmmaker Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯). What’s great about Jia Zhangke’s films is that they depict China as he sees it. Gritty would be the wrong word because it’s too assertive; Jia Zhangke’s films do not dress up China as a slum or as a paradise, they show China in her natural state of development. His presence in the film lends it immediate credibility with Chinese cinephiles and his character, Sumi’s uncle, is the most authentic representation in the film.

Still the movie suffers from two dimensional characters and low brow humor. Haohan’s other motivation to travel with Jianghe across country is to reconnect with friends who he hasn’t seen in years, as the Chinese title alludes to; the title of the film in Chinese means to have a meeting with someone that is postponed indefinitely. Haohan seeks out Zhoumo (周沫) and Liuyingying (刘莺莺) and they offer him enigmatic dialogue and didactic monologues that render their characters as nothing more than mouthpieces for the film and the filmmaker. The film is packed with comedic moments, some are well executed but others are vapid or tasteless. Haohan dragging his useless leg, which fell asleep on the toilet (haha), behind him as he is escaping with Sumi and Jianghe, is funny until the level of exaggeration renders it silly. The scenes of the Jianghe and Haohan peeing with the hitchhiker are senseless. The reveal of the hitchhiker as Hong Kong recording artist Wallace Chung cheapens the earlier cameo by Jia Zhangke and Chung’s subsequent scenes vacillate between obnoxiously loud (and unfunny) and sentimental.

The Chinese title, about meetings postponed, also refers to the relationship between Haohan and Jianghe which is the emotional core of the film. These two men, with opposing worldviews and no home to go back to, have driven across their vast motherland to part for an indefinite amount of time. The film’s ending is bittersweet as we realize that Jianghe and Haohan face radically different futures and they face them without each others company.

The Continent does a serviceable job of depicting modern Chinese life and discussing some of the issues in Chinese society. Man with an unrecognizable homeland, women trying to escape patriarchal boundaries and uncertainty about the future are themes that The Continent touches on even if only cursorily. That being said, the film is not a commentary on modern China as much as it is a comedic road film that attempts to have a heart. To that end the film does not quite achieve its mark. Characters that might prove interesting are shuffled out of the film before the audience can truly experience them. The comedy in the film is hit or miss, but the film does boast a few interesting moments and the performances make it entertaining enough to at least keep the audience’s interest.

Ultimately, it is an interesting enough cinematic debut by Hanhan that makes me curious to see what he’ll do next.

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