Every day while CFI’s Hollywood readers take in the business of the Chinese film industry, the actual movies can sometimes seem exotic or remote. But in major US cities, mainstream Chinese films are increasingly available: thanks to Wanda’s purchase of AMC and distributors like China Lion, they get American theatrical releases practically simultaneous to their premieres at home. Though they receive virtually no publicity outside the non-Chinese community, these films are more than worth seeking out by anyone serious about engaging the Chinese industry, understanding the Chinese sensibility and familiarizing themselves with China’s talent pool. Periodically, CFI will review and point readers in the direction of noteworthy US releases of contemporary commercial and independent Chinese titles.
Absurd Accident (2017)
Don’t miss the New York premiere of young Chinese writer and director Li Yuhe’s directorial debut, Absurd Accident (2017), at the Asian American International Film Festival at Asia Society on August 3. It’s a great, dark comedy (perfect for date-nights) and a refreshing cinematic surprise that laughs at the real-life challenges faced by modern-day rural Chinese trying to cope with the encroachment of big city values.
Were it not for the odd funk soundtrack and turns to what might be best described as “Keystone Cops” interludes—complete with madcap silent movie-era ragtime piano and subtitles—Li’s six-act feature debut could claim a rightful connection to the Coen Brothers’ modern noir, Blood Simple.
With its intricately woven plot, masterful suspense, and a healthy dose of bizarre-yet-believable Joel & Ethan-esque twists, Li pushes his talented cast in hilarious directions in their portrayal of jealousy, greed, and lust all in the course of one night.
The misadventure begins when Yang Baiwan (Chen Xixu), a sexually impotent owner of a motel called The Gods Are Coming Inn, hires a hitman to murder his cheating wife, Ma Lilian, a “tigress” played with gusto by Gao Ye.
Baiwan pays a countryside fortune of 30,000 yuan ($4433) so his local “doctor,” a quack who’s been selling him the “Spring Has Come Again” aphrodisiac, will enlist the killer: a notorious gangster called “Mr. Marco” who works alone and whose weapon of choice is a pair of chopsticks.
On doctor’s orders, Baiwan gets Lilian drunk and puts her in their bed. He takes their guard dog to a neighbor’s house and then leaves so he’ll have the necessary alibi. When the killer breaks into the inn, however, the sleeping Lilian awakes and—in one of the film’s three black-and-white scenes depicting silent-but-subtitled scuffles—unmasks the man robbing her bedroom of jewelry (he’s seen sneaking around with no apparent intent to kill her).
She lights his hair on fire and, as awful as that sounds, sets the tone for the sinister slapstick humor that’s pervasive in the rest of the film.
Baiwan and Lilian, when she comes to, believe they have a robber’s dead body on their hands and must dispose of it. Or should they? Perhaps they should just call the friendly county policeman, on his last night of active duty before retirement, who they affectionately call “Uncle.”
The policeman shows up and plays the quintessential straight man to the chaos that reigns around him. There’s much humor, some universal, about the Chinese police, and this one, a half-corrupt-bully-half-kindly-bumbling-uncle, is among the funniest recorded on the big screen. Actor Chen Chunsheng delivers an on-screen master class in dry comedy.
One of the best scenes in the film comes in the fourth act, when a couple on a blind date (country bumpkin borrows car to impress tarted-up gold-digger) stop at The Gods Are Coming Inn for a naughty night out. The Inn is closed so, in mid-make-out, in the flashy sedan she thinks belongs to him, they bump the gearshift into drive and hit the gas, crashing into the car parked in front of them. But wait, there’s a man pinned between the cars—the body of the robber who was taken for dead by Baiwan and Lilian who had hid it in the trunk of their parked car.
The dating couple succeed in actually killing the robber this time and decide to put him in their borrowed car’s trunk and drive off into the night. They dump his body and, of course, are then promptly stopped by the policeman as he tours the area looking for the robber who broke into the inn.
Nervous, the two virtual strangers spill their guts to the cop, revealing to him what they have not revealed to one another—that the car is borrowed, for instance. This sparks a hilarious rant of disbelief by the comic actress Suxi Chen.
In one of the film’s best moments, Chen hands over all the evidence that shows she is not who she says she is, either: her wig, her falsies, her paste-on eyelashes. “There, Uncle, now there’s nothing fake left,” she says, mussing her short cropped hair. “Can I get a more lenient punishment?”
If the Absurd Accident has a moral, it might be “don’t fake it.” In other words, don’t sell so-called “aphrodisiacs,” don’t pretend to know a hitman so you can rob your neighbor while his drunk wife sleeps, don’t pose as a rich kid. Just be yourself, like Lilian. Like the policeman.
In today’s China, where—just as it happened in the U.S. in the 1950s—mass media is flooding the interior of a giant country, bombarding simple folks living in second- and third-tier cities with messages that tell them they don’t have the right lives. Not the right house, car, woman, man or job.
Director Li has successfully captured the angst of being left behind by China’s booming East Coast big city economic miracle with heartfelt humor and genius storytelling prowess. If his second film is anywhere near as good as this debut there’s hope for independent cinema in China after all.
WHAT DOES THE GRADE MEAN?
Here are some recent & modern-era vintage Chinese and Hong Kong films for comparison
- PLATFORM (2000, dir Jia Zhangke)
- THE WORLD (2004, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- DRUNKEN MASTER 2 (1994, dir. Lau Kar Leung & Jackie Chan)
- KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
- LET THE BULLETS FLY (2010, dir Jiang Wen)
- THE MERMAID (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
- A TOUCH OF SIN (2013, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- STILL LIFE (2006, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (2010, dir. Ding Sheng)
- EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017, dir. Alan Mak & Anthony Pun)
- MR SIX (2015, dir. Guan Hu)
- A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES (2004, dir. Feng Xiaogang)
- SUZHOU RIVER (1999, dir. Lou Ye)
- HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004, dir Zhang Yimou)
- RAISE THE RED LANTERN (1991, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- DUCKWEED (2017, dir. Han Han)
- I BELONGED TO YOU (2016, dir. Zhang Yibai)
- THE GREAT WALL (2016, dir. Zhang Yimou)
- OLD STONE (2016, dir. Johnny Ma)
- CRAZY STONE (2006, dir. Ning Hao)
- GO, LALA GO (2010, dir. Xu Jinglei)
- KUNG FU YOGA (2017, dir. Stanley Tong)
- RAILROAD TIGERS (2016, dir. Ding Sheng)
- THE WASTED TIMES (2016, dir. Cheng Er)
- CHONGQING HOT POT (2016, dir. Yang Qing)
- MONSTER HUNT (2015, dir. Raman Hui)
- JOURNEY TO THE WEST: THE DEMONS STRIKE BACK (2017, dir. Tsui Hark)
- SOME LIKE IT HOT (2017, dir. Song Xiaofei & Dong Xu)
- BORN IN CHINA (2016, dir. Lu Chuan)
- TINY TIMES (2013, dir. Guo Jingming)