Real Life Beats The High Life

After striking gold with the rich, nuanced portraiture of a mountainside village in 2009’s Ghost Town, Chinese documentarian Zhao Dayong stretches a smaller canvas for his debut fiction feature, a mostly ordinary chronicle bookended with flourishes. The usual Guangzhou suspects appear—a chewed-up-and-spat-out country girl, a cowardly scam artist, an unhappy adulterer—and casual cruelty for a buck is the Darwinian rule: A massage parlor boss sends a naïve new hire to attend to a sadistic crime kingpin, ignoring her screams. Zhao’s film faithfully rotates among these indifferently acted representatives of contemporary China but still feels halfhearted. The former oil painter seems more animated by colors than characters: The opening shot of female labor-camp workers rustling through purple chiffon is an arresting tableau of dazzle amid desperation. This overture blossoms at film’s end with a nearly stand-alone final chapter—like the remnant of another movie idea—starring “trash poet” Shen Shaoqiu as a tragically humane prison guard who forces inmates to read his lusty poetry aloud. This vision of free self-expression bubbling forth under authoritarian pressure echoes sentiments in Zhao’s previous work (despite playing, at first, like a very dark joke). But the rest of the movie lacks the thrilling organic open-endedness of Zhao’s nonfiction depictions; real life (or 2006’s Street Life) trumps this Life.

 
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