'A Man From Manchuria': Hong Kong Review
Chinese author Tang Di makes a stark, unsettling and challenging feature filmmaking debut that’s sure to spark debate
As an antidote to more familiar festival fare from China—the glossy historical epics and navel-gazing urban drama in the Jia Zhangke vein—writer Tang Di’s first foray into filmmaking, A Man from Manchuria, will garner a healthy amount of festival attention. Grimy, grim and possessing a nasty undercurrent of viciousness, the film is most notable simply for being so separate from the majority of films coming from the mainland right now. Nonetheless, as the experiment it is, it has next to no future in general release either regionally or in overseas niche markets, unless it finds a home as a museum piece. A Man from Manchuria is by the art circuit for the art circuit.
The story, such as it is, tracks the unhealthy and abusive relationship between an unnamed man (Liu Zheng, or Mxson Lau as credited on screen, who also did the music) and his wife (Liu Xiaomei) in the days (weeks, months?) following his return to northeastern Tangshan. He’s coming back to her as a wanted fugitive for a series of rapes and murders. Naturally the routine the pair falls into involves plenty of beatings (for her) and more rape, which Tang Di in his notes calls “consequences of events built on an unimagined freedom.” Broken into eight parts, subtitled “Slayer,” “Sex Addict” (evidently masturbating once makes one an addict), “Hunt Man,” and so forth, Manchuria jettisons traditional linear construction in favor of disjointed moments that eventually chronicle the man’s murder-rape-necrophilia spree, return to his wife, drug abuse and eventual ambiguous “capture” by police.
If The Counselor taught us anything it was that great writers do not ensure great screenwriting, and if Tang Di has a point to make it’s lost beneath the jarring imagery and ceaseless filler that seems more designed to puff out the film to feature length than to elucidate any ideas or themes. However, if the point was to make viewers uncomfortable and keep them off balance, it’s mission accomplished. Visually Manchuria is a willfully mixed bag that Tang Di, as cinematographer as well as co-editor, uses to recast the viewer as something of a voyeur, but without the commentary—about how we watch violence all the time and fail to act, about how we are currently wallowing in this kind of sordid behavior, about anything—to go with it. And if the central sexual relationship is supposed to be a consensual BDSM one (as the writer implies) it doesn’t show. It’s abusive. Full stop.
By the same token, that disorienting aesthetic is embedded in the fabric of the film, from the nearly abstract nature of time to the regular use of tight close-ups (particularly in sex scenes) that make the action difficult to follow, or even see. We can never be sure of what we're seeing. The director is fond of split screens, handheld camera, toggling between color and black and white, and images that run the gamut from vaguely expressionist to looking like a 1940s newsreel. On a technical note Nuo Yong’s sound design nicely captures the various states of emotional isolation the characters find themselves in at various times. The subtitles leave a lot to be desired (they fade in and out) though it hardly matters, as there’s only a modicum of dialogue, which dovetails nicely with the lack of narrative.
The lead actors are non-professionals with Liu Xiaomei as the woman faring better in a thankless role than Liu Zheng, though neither is really given a character to flesh out in the traditional sense of the word. Sadly, she’s saddled with the job of stitching together the story’s major moments by wandering the streets and derelict slums of Tangshan looking for her husband. Liu Zheng’s sex killer is an enigma throughout, though terrifyingly that may be by design. A Man from Manchuria is a film created specifically to get people talking, or arguing, but as it stands no one will be sure what they’re arguing about.
Production company: Individual, Poetic Film Production
Cast: Liu Zheng, Liu Xiaomei
Director: Tang Di
Screenwriter: Tang Di
Producer: Tang Lihua
Executive producer: Soonsky
Director of photography: Tang Di
Production designer: Eun Lee, Billy Yim
Editor: Mike Lee, Lim Jung-hoon, Tang Di
Music: Mxson Lau
World sales: Individual Picture Studio
No rating, 86 minutes