The High Life -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- At first glance, Zhao Dayong's "The High Life" looks to be yet another portrait of modern Chinese malaise, set in a sprawling concrete jungle like Beijing whose residents are simultaneously afraid of the success-at-all-costs future and rushing headlong to embrace it.

Though it may not be saying anything new (you'd think that when there are more than a billion people in the proverbial naked city narrative diversity wouldn't be an issue), Zhao's assured vision carries the film past its bumps -- another young girl made into a prostitute by her boyfriend -- to a relatively satisfying conclusion.

"The High Life" may just find enough currency to gain traction at overseas festivals and in urban markets where Jia Zhangke has been successful, but it runs the risk of fighting with too many other films almost exactly like it (often by Jia Zhangke) to come from China in the past few years. The market could be getting close to saturated.

In Guangzhou, petty con artist Jian Ming scams naive country folk like Xiao Ya out of their cash and keeps a record of them on his bedroom wall. His girlfriend Fang's relative wealth comes from being a kept woman, but she's had just about enough of her elderly patron. Jian Ming seems to be coasting along with few moral qualms until he befriends Xiao Ya and realizes that she brightens up his dull life. Nonetheless he sets her up to be assaulted by local gangster Hui, which finally compels him into an emotional reaction.

Director Zhao isn't new to the subject matter. His documentary films ("Street Life," "My Father's House") have also explored China's urban displaced and marginalized, and for the first time he branches out to feature length narrative.

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Zhao has a firm handle on the material and never lets it get away from him, though the closing sequences where various prisoners read poetry by prison guard Dian Qiu (a character we meet when Jian Ming goes inside after a pyramid scheme bust) is a jarring and slightly pretentious shift from the demure drama that came before.

But the never-ending quest for fun and profit and the slow erosion of humanity as a result of that is what's on Zhao's mind and though he recycles some elements that have become tropes in Chinese cinema "The High Life"'s economical images and clear concept of storytelling engage where many of its ilk fail to.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival Filmart/Asian Digital Competition
Sales: L'est Films Group
Production company: Lantern Films China HK
Cast: Qiu Hong, Shen Shaoqiu, Liu Yanfei, Su Qingyi
Director: Zhao Dayong
Screenwriter: Zhao Dayong
Producer: Zhang Xianmin, David Bandurski
Director of Photography: Xue Gang
Production Designer: Wang Jian
Music: Wei Chunyi
Editor: Zhao Dayong, Wei Chungyi
No rating, 96 minutes
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