Driverless -- Film Review

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The fates of five couples collide in a road accident in Zhang Yang's "Driverless," which borrows Paul Haggis' concept of making the car a catalyst for intertwined stories in "Crash."

Here, Beijing's booming motor culture serves as a mirror for China's warp-speed urban development. Zhang steers the narrative with a steady hand, seamlessly fusing overlapping strands and irregular timelines, to set a consistent tone of urban angst beneath contemporary chic.

Comparisons to Zhang's debut, "Love Spicy Soup," make "Driverless" taste like chicken broth, with the former's plucky characters and piquant humor watered down to more comforting melodrama for a local commercial audience -- though the style of "Driverless" remains too classy and mature to challenge domestic market dominance of such blase, materialistic chick-flicks as "Go Lala Go" or "Love in Cosmo." It drew about $1.8 million from nationwide boxoffice within 10 days -- a passable figure. Elsewhere, Zhang's kudos as a sixth generation mainstay ensures a smooth ride to festivals and overseas niche sales.

Thematically, "Driverless" branches out from "Soup's" singular focus on romantic love to paint a wider canvas of relationships and human encounters, all of which hinge on trust, its betrayal and reconciliation.

The film opens with a multiple car crash, triggered by an argument between struggling entrepreneur Zhixiong (Liu Ye) and his college first love, Xiaoyun (Gao Yuanyuan). Separated for 10 years, they meet again as business rivals. A one-night stand becomes Zhixiong's impetus to divorce his wife (Li Xiaoran).

As the title implies, the theme is loss of control or direction in life. This comes across with strongest social resonance in the case of Zhixiong and Xiaoyun. As examples of China's emerging yuppies, their dilemmas in love and career are bound up with the country's surging materialistic values. Zhixiong accuses Xiaoyun of ditching him to pursue the good life, but his own resolve is shaken by the financial stakes in his marriage and career. Zhang subtly elicits sympathy for their predicament without glossing over their flaws or self-centeredness.

Two other stories are woven in to add diversity in age and class. Singer-idol Wang Luodan plays a rich deaf-mute teenage girl who falls in love with promiscuous driver-for-hire Fox Ferrari (Wang Xuan). Her habit for amassing Polaroid snapshots of unknown dating couples and Ferrari's sex trophies certainly are pertinent observations of the socially detached or noncommittal attitudes of China's single-child generation.

This factor, and Wang's lanky, tomboyish image and unaffected manner, lend edginess to a teen romance that otherwise would be like any other Taiwan idol TV drama.

An unemployed ex-chauffeur's (Chen Jianbin) random act of gallantry to Wang Dan (Ruby Lin), a woman with poor parking skills, leads to life-changing experiences. As parallels between them are too neat and calculated -- he meets Wang just when he is struck by a family tragedy, and Wang encounters an urbane stranger right after getting pregnant and jilted by her fiance -- the segment comes across as a mere cautionary tale against shortcuts to getting rich or getting healed.

The final resolution of their problems is a wishful affirmation of human nature that's cheesy even by the standards of the film's "all's well that ends well" finale, which resembles the sappy closing montage of "Love, Actually."

The cast delivers controlled and genuine performances that are a welcome break from the crass overacting that populates China's commercial screens. Li stealthily steals the scene with a wrenching turn as the wife who gets short-shrift from Zhixiong.

Technical credits are aces, with precise editing playing a crucial role in smooth transition between flashbacks that peel back layers of backstory without confusion. Complementing traffic scenes choreographed with verve, "City of Life and Death" DP Cao Yu maneuvers his camera around the city's swanky haunts such as Sunlitun Village and Gongti Stadium with the alacrity of an Italian race car.

Opened: Friday, July 2 (China)
Production: Stellar Mega Media, China Film Group, Stellar Mega Film
Cast: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Li Xiaoran, Wang Luodan, Wang Xuan, Ruby Lin, Chen Jianbin
Director: Zhang Yang
Screenwriters: Zhang Yu, Huo Xin
Producers: Tan Hong, Han Sanping, Wang Biaoxia, Zhang Chaoyang, Liu Changle
Director of photography: Cao Yu
Art director: Li Yang
Music: Zhang Yadong
Editors: Yang Hongyu, Xu Hongyu
No rating, 104 minutes
Sales (China): China Film Group, Stella Mega Film
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