Chongqing Blues -- Film Review

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CANNES -- Even though upgraded to Competition from its original place in Un Certain Regard, "Chongqing Blues" represents no notable artistic leap in Sixth Generation filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai's repertoire. Flowing with the same pensive, heavy cadence of the river that visually and metaphorically dominates the film, it is an old style exploration of the new face of China through an itinerant father's return to the titular city to make sense of his son's death after abandoning his family for 15 years.

It may be solidly directed with Bressonian detachment and anchored by an absorbing performance by lead actor Wang Xueqi, but it is neither outstanding nor revelatory enough to play outside of a cluster of European art house cinemas.

While away on a long voyage, ship captain Lin Quanhai (Wang)'s 24-year-old son Bo (Zi Yi) was shot by police for a random stabbing and hostage taking incident in a mall. Lin left his native city Chongqing when Bo was only 10. He goes back to talk to those involved in the case or close to Bo's life in order to understand the circumstances of his death.

Lin's journey is both that of an errant father taking stock of his guilty past and the return of a prodigal son to his hometown to find himself an outsider. However, other than a vague suggestion of wanderlust and phone calls from Lin's new wife expressing agitation at his long absence, there is no penetration into why he was unwilling to stay put with either of his families. Wang's director's statement citing Lin as a symbol of restless, ever-changing contemporary China doesn't explain or convince.

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Wang's usual strength of depicting without condescension youth boxed in by their backgrounds ("Beijing Bicycle") or political milieu ("Shanghai Dreams") are compromised by contrived scenes to emphasize Lin's disconnect from his son's generation -- like his gawking in the club where Bo's buddy Hao (Qin Hao) dances, or his attempt to enlarge a screen-capture image of Bo (the pixilated effect symbolizes his blurry impression of his son). Nor do accounts or flashbacks by Hao, Bo's girlfriend Xiaowen (Li Feier) or the hostage (Fan Bingbing) provide enough insight into Bo's inner world and eventual breakdown (except that he misses his dad), to make him speak for China's disaffected youth.

The city's grungy character is captured by a roving handheld camera that follows Lin's from behind as he wanders around muggy streets strewn with dank and weathered buildings, always teeming with scruffily dressed crowds wearing stressed out frowns. These downcast images are intermittently juxtaposed with splendid wide shots of the riverside cityscape, veiled in layers of fog and haunting compositions of a pier filled with scrap construction vehicles.

Editing is clean and maintains a comfortably measured pace even if the film is overall too long at 115 minutes. Occasional use of a romantic piano score sits awkwardly with the gritty realism conveyed by the ambient sound and natural lighting in outdoor scenes.

Venue: Festival de Cannes -- Competition
Sales: Film Distribution
Production companies: Tempo Films, Beijing Bona Films & TV Culture Co., WXS Productions
Cast: Wang Xueqi, Fan Bingbing, Qin Hao, Zi Yi, Li Feier
Director-screenwriter: Wang Xiaoshuai
Screenwriter: Yang Yishu
Producers: Hsu Bing-Hsi, Zhang Hao
Director of photography: Wu Di
Production designer: Lu Dong
Music: Henry Wu
Costume designer: Fang Yan
Editors: Yang Hongyu, Fang Lei
No rating, 115 minutes
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