Jia Zhangke, one of China’s household indie names, returns with a take on Chinese mob life with his wife Zhao Tao as lead actress and muse. A co-production between China and France, he also utilises French cinematographer Eric Guatier instead of his usual collaborator Yu Lik-Wai. The result is a journey through new China, following a particularly resilient woman and her relationship with a less resilient man.
It’s 2001. Qiao (Zhao) is the ride-or-die girlfriend of Bin (Liao Fan), a local gangster - or jianghu - in Datong, a mining town on its last legs. Modernisation has yet to arrive in this area of China and it’s types like Bin that run the place, characters that lack class and act like liu mang but forge their own ideas of honour between themselves. Bin wants to live that romanticized gangster life, watching John Woo films and getting his hands on a gun; Qiao initially rejects his ambitions but finds herself drawn in. When Bin’s boss is killed and a rival gang attacks Bin and his entourage, Qiao makes the decision to whip out the gun and protect Bin, an action that lands her 5 years in prison and ages her tremendously. In 2006, she gets out and looks for Bin, who only had to serve 1 year, but finds that he has moved on with a new girlfriend and new life. Although Qiao is out of place in the rapidly developing Chinese cityscape, she’s crafty enough, scamming men by pretending to the sister of their mistress and dodging the threat of sexual assault.
She returns to Datong and it is 2017; the city is unrecognisable in its development but the old gangster hangout remains timeless, still home to smoking middle-aged men playing mahjong all day, an establishment that Qiao becomes the boss of. Bin shows up, crippled by a stroke, and Qiao takes him in despite it all, taking him to a local doctor and protecting his honour from anyone who dares mock him. “Do you hate me?”, Bin asks her in an abandoned sports arena. “I don’t have any feelings towards you,”, she replies, eyes shut and face hard to read; she lives by the jianghu code of honour that he has abandoned long ago.
The first act is very bitty and fragmented, setting up this relationship and soaking in the dying community. It’s detailed enough, but a lot is left behind in the coming acts, such as Qiao’s miner father. It settles when Qiao gets out of jail, the camera transforming from frantic handheld to dollying, slow movements and reaching a calm zenith when Qiao and Bin discuss their relationship in a long take set in a neon-tinged hotel room. After that, it takes a very strange turn into the surreal, featuring director Xu Zheng as a smooth talking traveller who serves as a possible new love.
Despite all the shakier parts, Zhao’s performance is very consistent and very, very impressive. It seems difficult to play a stoic character and add much depth to them, but the moments where her calm demeanour fades and her vulnerability shines provides insight into an otherwise unreadable character. Similarly, Jia writes Bin as something more than a stereotypical sleazeball; when Bin is attacked by some punk kids, he exclaims “Was that really necessary?” and forgives them when his gang brings them in, bruised and apologetic. They’re jianghu but they are still grounded in reality.
A gaggle of directors show up in cameos, including Feng Xiaogang, whose role adds little to the story and contributes to the laborious running time. Jia makes the decision to film short scenes and piece of them together, which makes it feel rather fragmented at times. To say it is a slow burn is an understatement; it seems like nobody is capable of even walking at a brisk pace in this story. That being said, it does make the street fight which kicks off Qiao’s problems stand out as a result, providing a well needed shot of adrenaline.
It’s not Goodfellas; this is a love story which ebbs and flows, set against the similarly shifting landscape of China which is still rapidly developing every day. But traditions stay the same, individual views on respect, duty and honour stand the test of time and people continue to grind against the challenging environment; some survive and some simply just leave, fading away into the newly paved concrete streets.
Watch the trailer here: