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Securing one of the world’s most critically garlanded filmmakers to appear in your directorial debut could be a masterstroke for any rookie director, but a device that could easily backfire when your film turns out to be a pretentious, pointless replica of that very icon’s oeuvre. With Jia Zhangke‘s cameo, Chinese pop-lit star Han Han lays bare what inspired The Continent, but also reveals, perhaps inadvertently, how his film is just an amalgamation of Jia’s visuals and vignettes — emptied of even the slightest smidgen of artistic edge and social relevance.
Boasting a title as epic as The Continent, and a protagonist’s name translating as “rivers and streams,” Han’s road movie is all artistic posturing but no substance. By the film’s end, one is not much wiser about the two travelers’ backgrounds or personalities beyond their over-stylized encounters with cliched archetypes (the old flame, the innocent prostitute, the zany hitchhiker). Not that one gets to learn about the roads being traveled too, as Han never really ventured specific reflections about the state of the Chinese nation unfolding around the characters — in fact, there’s even scant mention of China here. The nuggets of cod philosophy on show are universal to the point of banality: It’s all so romantic and melancholic for two men to hit the road to find some answers to their life, but the film never really reveals what their questions are.
The Continent‘s central pairing are Jiang He (Bolin Chen, Buddha Mountain) and Haohan (Feng Shaofeng, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon), two young men living on a run-down, rustic village in the depopulated island at the eastern coast of the country; their trip arose as a result of the former’s assignment to a teaching position in a western province. En route, they would meet Zhou Mo (Joe Chen), who earns her living as a background actor in film studios every day; Su Mi (Wang Luodan), a damsel-in-distress trying to escape the clutches of her mobster uncle (Jia); Liu Yingying (Yuan Quan), a snooker-hall proprietor who punctures Haohan’s dreams for love and family; and finally Ah Lu (Wallace Chung), a free-spirited wanderer whose existence amounts to nothing but the need to find someone to relieve the pair of their car and walk the final stretch of their journey.
The formula, apparently, is have these women — all exotic in their different ways — change these dreamy young men and the way they see the world. But these gents are not for turning — because there’s simply nothing there in their psyche to be turned or altered in the first place. These are not nihilists, as Jack Kerouac‘s roadsters are; The Continent offers non-entities who — as the onscreen proxy of Han himself, probably — has nothing to say apart from indulging in, with furrowed brows, the fantasy of being a pretty face meeting other pretty faces while driving a pretty car in pretty landscapes.
And these are landscapes, though captured beautifully by Liao Hwa and pepped up pristinely by production designer Liu Weixin, well-trodden previously. A walk through fake streets filled with dressed-up people play-acting roles as work? That’s Jia Zhangke’s The World. Young men rescuing a young woman from the evil claws of a baddie? That’s from a Jia film again, Unknown Pleasures. Satellite dishes and spaceships in rural China? That’s a scene from Still Life. And a final reunion with an old flame? That’s Platform. Finally, of course, there’s the film’s episodic structure, each representing a different way of living in China — something that drives A Touch of Sin, Jia’s magnum opus. Isn’t it ironic that Han’s pale copy of that is raking eight-digit box-office returns in China while the original remains unreleased, caught in censorship limbo?
In a way, The Continent is not substantial enough to be an homage to Jia and his fiery attempt to relay China’s problems; on the other hand, it’s too earnest and po-faced to be pastiche or parody. A Shanghai-born enfant terrible born into a comfortable lifestyle with scant experience of living outside the bright lights of the big city — his hobby is driving race cars — Han has delivered a glossy, sugar-coated adaptation of the gritty realism Jia and his fellow sixth-generation Chinese filmmakers have shaped and perfected. While his archrival Guo Jingming is more honest and explicit about his garish celebration of bling-fueled melodrama in the Tiny Times films, Han has produced a film devoid of meaning but filled to the brim with pretensions of artistic greatness — or at least glimpses of artistic greatness he has readily absorbed, drained of power and then called his own.
Production companies: Laurel Films, Guomai Culture and Film, Bona Film Group
Cast: Bolin Chen, Feng Shaofeng, Wang Luodan, Yuan Quan, Joe Chen
Director: Han Han
Screenwriter: Han Han
Producers: Fang Li
Executive producer: Fang Li, Lu Jinbo, Yu Dong
Director of photography: Liao Hwa
Production designer: Liu Weixin
Editor: Shao Yang
Music: Takeshi Kobayashi
No rating; 106 minutes
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