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Boasting two of China’s most bankable A-listers as principals, Ning Hao‘s road-movie – his second in 12 months, after the long-gestated Berlin competition entry No Man’s Land – has proved to be the unsurprising hit during the country’s week-long National Day festive break: the film, which bowed at Toronto before its domestic opening on Sept. 30, has already generated takings of over a whopping $100 million.
Beyond the ringing tills, however, Breakup Buddies is perhaps banking too much on its star-power, with Lost in Thailand duo Huang Bo and Xu Zheng‘s on-screen charisma motoring a vehicle bogged down by its wafer-thin premise, incoherent structure and big dollops of cringe-worthy humor justified by a hackneyed moral about the power of real love. While the film’s blockbuster performance would consolidate Ning’s standing as one of China’s most successful directors of his generation, it also signals the end of his erstwhile audacious abilities in subverting long-established generic tropes.
There’s still a subversive, censor-baiting spirit running through Breakup Buddies – but only in the sense of its flirtation with the risque in the shape of warped representations of women, dated jokes on homosexuality, and freewheeling deployment of potty language. Well, that’s where Ning and his army of six screenwriters intend to draw blood during the first two-thirds of the film, at least, as the freshly divorced ex-singer-songwriter Geng Hao (Huang, last seen in the straight-faced child-abduction drama Dearest) is coerced by his film-producer friend Hao Yi (Xu, making a return to comedy after the thriller The Great Hypnotist) into leaving Beijing and getting laid with the “thousands of women” they would encounter on the way to the southwestern Chinese city of Dali.
Thus cue a string of encounters between the pair and, among others, a provincial punk, a mobster’s moll and a short-skirted, long-legged beauty whose sexuality renders her beyond the men’s grasp. Just as many a gross-out comedy, of course, the film suggests there’s always a warm human heart beating beneath the most chauvinist veneer – and all these ill-fated adventures in these seedy, smalltown locations are seemingly designed to bring out the good men in Geng and Hao.
But these disjointed episodes hardly provide a coherent and full-fledged fabric of a narrative. Instead, these rumbles in rural backwaters are there as if Ning is trying to lampoon the po-faced realism espoused by more serious and socially aware work of Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Wang Xiaoshuai – or, for that matter, his younger self, when China’s underclass woes still featured prominently even in the heist caper Crazy Stone (2006) or the noir-meets-western No Man’s Land (with its nihilist perspective of human nature leading to a three-year censorship limbo, before finally getting official approval for release last November).
While there are flickers of humanity – and the director has Huang to thank for conjuring a stellar turn, including a stunning solo take of Geng’s phone conversation with his ex-wife, from such haphazard material – Breakup Buddies resembles more like a mishmash of pastiches – of the road movie, of Hong Kong gangster films (complete with a drunken Geng delivering Cantonese lines found frequently in scenes of blood brothers falling out) and even of Park Chan-wook‘s aestheticized violence (the spirit of Oldboy is evoked as baroque music – mainly Vivaldi’s Winter – soundtracks a tracking shot of a fight between Geng and a group of thugs).
There’s even an imitation of the warped-timeline trick common to romance drama these days, as Geng’s wife Xiaoyu (Yuan Quan, The Golden Era) appears both down the line in calls with Geng and Hao, and also as a heartbroken, young woman recuperating in Dali. While Yuan also delivers a decent performance here, the room for her to maneuver is limited as she struggles with caricatured, ominous men around her and also a spectre of some unspecified past. This vagueness in characterization, however, is a general trait in a film as much about break ups as it is a piece of broken-up storytelling.
Production companies: Injo Films Limited, in a presentation by China Film Co. Ltd., Beijing Galloping Horse Film Co. Ltd., Beijing Asian Union Culture & Media Investment, Ltd., Beijing Shine Land Culture, Beijing Talent International Film Company Limited, Beijing Skywheel Entertainment Co. Ltd., HuangBo Studio, Dirty Monkey
Cast: Huang Bo, Xu Zheng, Yuan Quan, Zhou Dongyu
Director: Ning Hao
Screenwriters: Yue Xiaojun, Xing Aina, Sun Xiaohang, Dong Yunnian, Zhang Disha, Zhang Yifan
Producers: Wang Yibing, Ling Hong
Executive producers: Anwar Wufuer, Yin Zhe, Deng Sheng
Director of photography: Song Xiaofei
Production designer: Hao Yi
Editor: Du Yuan
Casting directors: Zhang Lian, Fan Xinshu, Xu Tiesheng, Wang Feng
Music: Nathan Wang, Dong Dongdong
International Sales: IM Global
US distributor: China Lion
No rating; 116 minutes
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