'The Conformist' ('Bing Zhi Xia'): Film Review

Courtesy of Tokyo FilmEx
A hard-boiled hoodlum in a land of ice.

Chinese star Huang Bo secured a prize in Shanghai for his turn as a ruffian drifting across jobs and cities in the Sino-Russian borderlands.

After The Conformist's Tokyo FilmEx screening, a viewer asked director Cai Shangjun whether film noir is a genre on the rise in Chinese cinema. It's not hard to see why. Cai's third and latest feature, which bowed at FilmEx alongside Vivian Qu's noir-inflected Angels Wear White, is a finely crafted tale in which a hard-boiled hoodlum contends with myriad criminals, multiple conspiracies and an icy femme fatale in bleak border outposts in China and Russia.

Though The Conformist's story and visual style bear scant resemblance to Bernando Bertolucci's thriller of the same name, Cai has acquitted himself with many of the same elements that propelled that 1970 film to legendary status. There's the lead actor's stellar performance, with Huang Bo (Lost in Thailand, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons) delivering a nuanced, measured turn in perhaps his most against-type role to date. Then there are the sights and sounds: Hong Kong lenser Yu Lik-wai teases out an eerie sense of beauty from the film's gloomy architecture and snowy landscapes, while Qin Wenchen's score and Wen Bo's sound effects further augment the ambience.

Having seemingly ditched his comical persona for good, Huang has already won a prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival and a nomination at Taiwan's Golden Horses. This pic has also enjoyed festival exposure in Toronto and Tokyo, though a Chinese release date has not yet been confirmed.

Bolstered by Huang's performance, by cinematographer Yu's art house credibility thanks to his long-running collaboration with Jia Zhangke and by director Cai's track record — he won Venice's best director prize in 2011 with his previous film People Mountain People Sea The Conformist appears earmarked for wide travel.

The film begins in deep winter in a grungy, unnamed city in northern China. Everyone seems obsessed with striking it rich and then moving to the country's warmer south for a better life — except the hardened Bo (Huang). A former lumberjack, he barely looks beyond the daily scams that earn him a living in the here and now. Having spent some time conning people with card tricks in an illegal gambling den, Bo plots to go all out and clean the place out at gunpoint.

When his sister's boyfriend nicks his idea and his gun and proceeds to kill someone in the holdup, Bo is forced to flee across the border to Russia, where he reinvents himself as a subdued shopkeeper. His mask slips slightly, however, when he encounters and falls for Bingbing (singer-actor Song Jia, When Larry Met Mary). Their affair draws him into a complex criminal conspiracy with her vanished mobster lover (You Yongzhi from Johnnie To's Election series).

Flaunting an instinctive amorality that allows him to conform to changes in the circumstances around him, Bo manages to survive the problematic tryst, return home and wriggle out of his legal troubles through sheer luck and at the expense of others. He steadfastly refuses to reveal his emotions, and soldiers on guilt-free like the big winner in Crime and Punishment (one of his Russian addresses is on "Dostoyevsky Street”).

In the end, growling and aloof, Bo lives the high life his provincial friends have been dreaming about, with his emotions allowed to run wild in a fantastical tropical finale. With The Conformist, Huang has upped his game — and so has Cai, with a more fully formed piece than the uneven People Mountain People Sea.

Production companies: Fangjin Visual Media Culture Communication (Beijing), Shanghai Hanna Film Culture Communication, Wuxi AJS Communication
Cast: Huang Bo, Song Jia, Xiao Shenyang, You Yong
Director: Cai Shangjun
Screenwriters: Gu Xiaobai, Gu Zhen, Cai Shangjun
Producers: Li Xing, Cai Shangjun
Executive producers: Li Xudong
Director of photography: Yu Lik-wai
Production designer: Lou Pan
Costume designer: Laurence Xu
Music: Qin Wenchen
Editing: Kong Jinlei

In Mandarin and Russian
126 minutes

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