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.
Set in a nearly deserted factory town in China’s frigid northeast, veteran director Geng Jun’s film Free and Easy is a slow and hauntingly surreal police procedural with spiritual overtones that takes a darkly comic look at the role fear plays in shaping human behavior.
The main cast of misfits include a wall-eyed petty thief posing as a soap salesman, a con man in monk’s robes, and a pair of two-bit bully-policemen. These fellows are, by turns, all trying to scam the townspeople, or get over on one another—or they are trying to catch one another in the act, not out of any sense of morality or duty but rather to get ahead, selfishly.
Meanwhile, the other half of the small main cast includes a solemn tree conservationist, a developmentally challenged Christian who’s searching for his missing mother, and a beautiful woman who runs a boarding house. These three all are striving for a cleaner life, both inside and out.
The soap salesman walks the rubble-strewn alleys with his case, stopping lone passersby and tempting them with a free sample. His soap has “four scents in one,” he says, “one on each side.” By the fourth sniff, the soap’s smell (chloroform?) knocks the customer unconscious and the salesman picks his pockets.
One early victim, a young man handing out leaflets promoting lessons in English and kung fu, chases the salesman down upon awakening from his soap-induced stupor. Their standoff, on a dirt path between abandoned brick buildings, is the first of many such showdowns in Free and Easy. Each standoff between different pairs of characters serves as cinematic allegory for the choices we humans must make, daily and over a lifetime, between right and wrong.
In full frame, the salesman—his lazy eye making it hard to tell where he’s coming from, his oily black pompadour foreshadowing the evil workings of his mind—manipulates the martial arts instructor into submission brandishing a fake pistol, scaring the man with his punitive words.
“It’s just a little money,” says the salesman. “Think of your family. You’re the future. It’s not worth losing your life. Apologize to me. Say you were wrong.”
There’s lots of gaslighting in Free and Easy, making it tough to imagine that the film, which premiered at Sundance in January, will ever get a wide release inside China. Its focus on Christian charity versus deception, especially when it’s pushed by figures of authority, is probably too close to the bone for the censors who answer to a state in which the Communist Party is regarded on a higher realm than any faith.
Competing with the salesman for the town’s petty cash and trinkets is a beefy man with a shaved head clad in the mustard colored robes of a Buddhist teacher. Looking his marks straight in the eye, he begs for alms and lies about raising money for a temple lost to a fire. “Touch me for good luck” he says as he extorts high prices for cheap talismans.
The soap salesman and monk perpetrate fraud, employing intimidation when trickery fails. And fail it does against the Christian whose oft-repeated prayers—and the head cold that saves him from smelling the soap—give him the confidence to look past their trickery and see that God has a better plan for them all.
The Christian’s gestures of kindness break through the faux-monk’s hard shell, sparking a crisis of conscience and a confession to the soap salesman that he suffers from anxiety and that, though he wears the garb of a man of peace, he can be brutal.
“Sometimes I just don’t have it in me,” says the soap salesman, softening. They’re two of a kind and soon find solace in each other’s company. Yet, knowing no other way, they keep robbing, even leaving one mark knocked out on the floor of a public toilet with his pants dropped at his ankles.
Their comeuppance—and the film’s reminder that there’s always somebody bigger to take what you think is rightly yours—begins with the act of a peasant who has a lined face betraying decades of fieldwork. Trying to pawn off her bracelets to pay the medical bills for her “dying husband,” she whistles when the soap salesman dashes off with her gold. Her two strapping sons answer the call, catch both the salesman and the monk, and insist they beat one another up.
Repeatedly in Free and Easy, one human manipulates another to do dirty work and make bad choices, as when the two antacid-munching cops force the kung fu kid to show off his routine for their entertainment, ignoring that he’s there to report that he’s been robbed by the roving conmen. Soon after, one inept cop pressures the other into sniffing the soap himself.
“What was it like?” asks one cop. “I felt free and easy,” says the other in slothful ecstasy, describing what might as well have been a nod on heroin, or, on a lesser plane of hell, a flight of escapism into the fantasy of choice in the head of any member of the audience.
Make no mistake, Free and Easy takes direct aim at anybody in China who’s ripping off anybody else, and at anybody who’s not doing their utmost to resist corruption. The conservationist screams in anger at poached trees. His wife the boarding house operator only greets cops outside their home, refusing to out of plain sight when one arrives to snoop around. She rebuffs a policeman’s lascivious advances until he knocks her out with a bar of soap he holds in evidence.
The dark climax thereafter finds nearly the whole cast united against the police and yet trembling in fear of punishment for something they haven’t done. To see the film is to glimpse the paralyzing frustration many Chinese face at deep-seeded corruption and the mistrust and fear and folly it inspires.
Free and Easy screens in New York on Saturday August 5 at the Asia Society as a part of the Asian American International Film Festival. Click here for more screening info.
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)