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A brilliant technical tour-de-force, the Chinese art film Useless Man has such boundless energy and invention it can be forgiven being so rooted in local history and idiom that its story slips into obscurity for long patches. The difficulty posed by its multi-layered, fast-talking screenplay will prevent it from being an easy choice for Western festival programmers, much less commercial distributors. Yet the wild, atmospheric tale of a smug young idler who falls for a beautiful con artist in 1930s Tianjin announces a major new talent in director Zheng Dasheng. He also presented the star-crossed love story Falling City, which was shot nearly at the same time recycling the same sets, in the Shanghai film festival’s Spectrum sidebar. Both are worth consideration for sophisticated showcases, with Useless Man having the edge.
Signaling the historical setting as a lost world is a dazzling opening sequence in which the camera pans over archival photos accompanied by realistic city sounds. The whole film is recounted in a dim speakeasy to an audience of men in 1930s dress by a traditional Chinese storyteller. His witty language conjures up Tianjin in the years leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1937, painting the city as a prosperous town full of café life, back street dealers and loafers. His tale comes alive onscreen as the camera switches from rich sepia tones to color.
It comes as a surprise to find out the hero of the story is Su Er Ye, a grinning, overfed young fellow wearing a spotless khaki robe, played with broad humor and an ample range of facial expressions by TV presenter Guan Xincheng in his first screen role. In another culture Er Ye might be called a combination busybody, troublemaker and street inspector, strutting around town tricking people into inviting him to lunch and paying him for small scams and playing practical jokes. One day he bumps into Yu Qiuniang (Yang Miao), a deliciously malicious young lady posing as a bride, and love is born. While Er Ye courts her and she, more practically, plays up to a rich and powerful admirer (Zhang Jinyuan), they team up in a con game that involves an unidentified corpse fished out of the river. Qiuniang now poses as the dead man’s widow and threatens to sue a shopkeeper; Er Ye, her secret ally, presents himself as a mediator, pretending to represent the shopkeeper’s interests. To make the lawsuit seem real, they get the scheming editor (Li Hongchen) of a daily newspaper involved, and here the story starts to spin into murky waters, at least for those following the lightning fast subtitles.
As the horizon darkens with war clouds, everyday tricks and cheating are no longer an innocent sucker’s game but turn into serious business. Yet once again the script and direction take an unexpected turn in a beautifully ironic ending, funny and poignantly melancholy at the same time. Though Guan’s comic idler is never depicted as a victim or even as a clown-turned-hero, the actor draws sympathy with his big face and shabby clothes, even before his bravura stand in the final scene. He makes an appropriately humorous pair with the petite spitfire Qiuniang, portrayed by Yang with arch aplomb.
Much of what is admirable about the low-budget film is in its stunning visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Jeffrey Chu, which gracefully combine with stylized VFX, like Chinese newsprint rearranging itself on the screen or a bright red cloak swirling through a whole sequence shot in black and white.
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Spectrum)
Production company: Magic City Entertainment Co.
Cast: Guan Xincheng, Yang Miao, Zhang Jinyuan, Li Hongchen, Zheng Fushan
Director: Zhang Dasheng
Screenwriters: Wu Bin, Jin Yuxuan, based on a novel by Lin Xi
Producer: Ge Xiaozheng
Executive producer: Sun Yan
Director of photography: Jeffrey Chu
Production designer: Wu Bin
Music: Zhe He
Editor: Gao Bing
No rating, 90 minutes.
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