Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai began as a covert operator, making two films that dangled by a shoestring under the Film Bureau’s radar, before entering the state-run studio system for So Close to Paradise, a grim, reticent tour of the rapidly expanding port city of Wuhan. Centering on the love triangle that forms between petty criminal Gao Ping (Guo Tao), his naive younger buddy Dongzi (Shi Yu), and a nightclub singer named Ruan Hong (Wang Tong), the film became enmeshed in a three-year tug-of-war between the director and the Chinese censors before its bowdlerized Cannes debut in 1999; another two years of negotiations intervened before this cut arrived in New York.
The endless (and all too familiar) wrangling raises questions of intent. The elliptical, even fragmented editing style clashes with the reiterative voice-over, which could indicate a stylistic choice or cutting under duress. Stilted platitudes (“All I know is that people should make money by their own labor and shouldn’t break the law,” Dongzi says) could be a genuine guiding ethos or a bargaining chip. An overarching theme does remain intact: In a newly market-driven economy, money infects human interactions like a virus. Friendships implode and romance is perverted—the thief and the showgirl’s affair commences when he kidnaps and rapes her in a vengeance plot.
In the absence of developed characters, the film’s protagonist becomes the city itself: the harshly lit open-air markets at night, the sunlight-splashed morning ferry crowded with rural commuters (a TV announcer snidely refers to them as “shoulder poles”). If Gao Ping and Dongzi’s dying bond sketches the clash between old and new, then the gum-snapping, snugly clad Ruan Hong represents both inadvertent femme fatale and index of the pitfalls of economic liberalization. The camera is perpetually cornering her and chasing her down, through pitch-black alleys, crowded commercial blocks, even a cheesy family restaurant—just another product to be acquired and exchanged.
Anyone watching the Grammys who caught the ads for the new CBS show Some of My Best Friends (apparently based not on Eminem & Elton John but the 1997 niche-squatter Kiss Me Guido) has already got the gist of Hit and Runway. It begins as shrill, facile sitcom pilot (straight, actively homophobic lunk teams up with gay, actively masochistic nebbish to write a script) and ends as grotesquely mawkish pro-tolerance TV movie. Like all one-liner-driven screenplays about screenplays, this one aspires to Seinfeld: The gay guy’s affect is secondhand Costanza, while his cutie boyfriend is assigned the honorific “Jew magnet”—just like Elaine! Hit and Runway is indeed a show about nothing—its jokes based on stick-figure stereotypes, its lunges at humanism premised on imbecilic pity.