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SHANGHAI — An intellectually teasing absurdist comedy with a touch of Zen, Zhu Wen’s “Thomas Mao” ostensibly dramatizes the culture shock between a Chinese hillbilly and an American backpacker but goes beyond that to smudge the boundaries between art and life, dream and reality. “Inception” it is not, but its layering of dreams is nearly as complex, and even encompasses such diverse elements as Chinese philosophy, myth of Genesis, martial arts, alien visitation and avant garde art.
Filled with as many laugh-out-loud farcical gags as high brow visual aesthetics, “Thomas Mao” is a refreshing aperitif for the artsy crowd yet relatively accessible to an open-minded western audience. Within China’s current filmmaking trends, it juts out like a lone palm tree in a desert oasis. The majority audience will probably be festival audiences and China’s art in-crowd.
The prologue quotes a famous anecdote of Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (369-286 B.C.) One day, he dreams of turning into a butterfly; awake, he wonders if he is in fact a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi. This belief in the relativity of perception or experience and the elusiveness of reality itself underpin the film’s many parallel worlds, which Zhu evokes with wacky spoofs of ’80s Hong Kong “wire-fu” swordplay flicks and sci-fi B-movies.
The film is divided into two wildly different yet intriguingly connected parts. The first part takes place on the Mongolian grassland during the summer of the 2008 Olympics. An American painter (Thomas Rohdewald) takes up lodgings for three days at a ramshackle lakeside inn run by a hot-headed, trigger-happy innkeeper (Mao Yan). They have preternatural visions and share the same dream.
While Mao is a hilarious and scary bundle of demented Neanderthal energy, Rohdewald tackles his roles and the ridiculous situations he gets into with deadpan roguery. Their delightful screen rapport is like that of bickering old-time chums.
The situation of a grumpy, demanding foreigner talking at cross purposes with a country bumpkin who rants in an obscure Hunan dialect gives fodder for “lost in translation” jokes. To this, Zhu adds slapstick humor arising from a different type of ‘racial tension’: the innkeeper is murderously intent on guarding his prized purebred German Alsatian from the sexual advances of a local mongrel, while the American keeps helping the mutt sow his wild oats behind his back.
In bold spatial and color contrast to the first part, with its boundless natural setting, lush green palette interspersed with Taoist black-and-white color dichotomies, the second part tracks fluidly around stark interiors of pristine gray and white. To disclose what happens in this segment, and the real life identities of Mao and Rohdewald would deprive the viewer of the kick they’ll get from the surprise reversals.
Though shot in a documentary style, such is the director’s playful tone that this section could well be nothing but a dream shared by the innkeeper and his guest as they take a nap in the front lawn.
Alternatively, the first part could be a dream, shared by the Mao and Rohdewald as they dose off simultaneously at the end of part two. Indeed, one could interpret any part or all of the film as one or many dreams.
Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Production & Sales: China Film Assist.
Cast: Mao Yan, Thomas Rohdewald, Jingzi, Ye Feng, Gouzi
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Zhu Wen
Producer: Geng Ling
Executive producers: Wang Jinghua
Director of photography: Wang Min
Production designer: Huang Xinming
Music: Liao Ching Song
Costume designer: Xiang Honghui
Editor: Kong Jinlei
No rating, 77 minutes
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