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Lin Dong and Wang Mei are a childless couple in Beijing, wealthy, approaching middle age. Lin owns a foot-massage parlor. One afternoon he rapes one of his workers, Liu Pingguo, who has nearly passed out from drinking alcohol with a friend. Part of the assault is witnessed by Liu's husband, An Kun, a window washer. He's angry with the boss and with his wife, and he seeks compensation. Lin's wife counsels him and joins in revenge. Then, Liu realizes she's pregnant and a set of emotional calculations ensues: Lin wants to buy the child, Wang agrees but has conditions, An Kun goes back and forth and barely contains his anger; Liu withdraws. The baby comes. Can anything be sorted out? Written by
Beijing bothering, festival favouring film breaks few taboos
Peng Guo is the story of a young provincial Chinese woman in Beijing, Liu Pengguo, caught between the sexual and financial desires and demands of her husband, An Kun, and her boss, Lin Dong.
It is said that all cultures pass through certain distinctive stages before reaching decadence and decline. I would like to think that one of these stages, one that comes somewhere towards the end of industrialisation, relates to the need to make rather miserable social realist films with wobbly camera work, jump cuts, shallow focus, piano scores in minor keys, and long takes of (non-professional) actors "acting", which win Golden Somethings at European film festivals. China, it appears, is no exception.
OK, I'll admit to being cynical. It is clearly a well-funded, well-produced, and well-observed drama. And I suppose that social realist films don't generally have happy endings, so I shouldn't be smug about that either. Yet, if I had to distil my criticism down to one thing it would be the director's wilful conformity to the "genre". I find myself yearning for Zhang Yimou's films of the late eighties and early nineties, when Chinese film had a real sense of identity. Now it seems to be a mish-mash of various Western influences and little substance, a bit like Mando-pop (just with less smiling). This "conformity" takes on an ironic edge, not just because it was made under a communist government, but because the government banned it. In addition, the producers have been banned from making another film in China for two years, which strikes me as being just enough time to promote this film in Europe, write another one and get some European funding for it! OK, OK, still being cynical. It is a good film. The script is engaging and occasionally quite surprising (especially as we all know it's going to end in tears). The acting is good all round, especially thanks to two Asian cinema stalwarts Tony Leung Ka Fai and Elaine Jin (think Robert De Niro and... um... Juliette Binoche?) playing the boss and his wife, Wang Mei. Elaine Jin steals the show really, creating a character who is both impetuous and enigmatic at the same time. There are some nice insights into Beijing life, which are welcome post-Olympics razzmatazz. The direction is a bit contrived as I have noted, but when director Yu Li finally shakes off film school and gets the camera on a tripod it makes for a nice last few scenes.
That said, the film struggles to find its focus. While it's clearly a film about Fan Bingbing's physically and emotionally abused heroine, the POV shifts to that of her husband for large swathes of the narrative and we are left feeling rather sympathetic for him despite his (rather unsubtle) faults. The second act lightens in tone so much that it seems to be heading towards black comedy. The one and only sub-plot involves a prostitute who seems to be there to remind us that the four central characters are not the only ones having a crappy time and she drops out of the story just as conveniently.
And then there's the controversy. Yes, it's got sex in it and no, Beijing wasn't happy with that. Would the film be any different without the sex scenes? Not really - decide for yourself. Two swallows don't make a summer, just as two arses don't make a controversial film necessarily polemical. Mind you, 2007 was quite a year for Hong Kong film royalty showing their posteriors - the other Tony Leung (Chiu Wai) bared his for 'Lust, Caution'... But I digress.
If you have watched a lot of these films from emerging economies, you will recognise the format all too well and, given the necessarily downbeat subject matter, the only pleasure might be guessing exactly how everyone is going to plunge into the misery for which they were all destined. Oh well. As films of this genre go it's not bad, so give it a go and make your own mind up.
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