Fake Fiction (Mo Deng Nian Dai): Film Review

"Fake Fiction"
Bottom Line: Solid performances from Xu Zheng and child star Zhang Zifeng carry a film showcasing an unsure approach in inject harsh social critique into a comedy.

The director-star of China’s highest-grossing homegrown release returns, playing a small-time trickster who regains his conscience in the company of a young girl.

For the past month, Xu Zheng has been nearly omnipresent in mainland Chinese cinemas.

He was first seen in a cameo in the Fan Bingbing romantic comedy One Night Surprise, and then his voice was heard doing Sully’s lines in the Mandarin dubbed version of Monsters University. The proper test for the actor, however, comes with Fake Fiction, his first full-fledged, feature film role after the runaway success of Lost in Thailand – which he starred in and directed.

It’s a surprisingly low-key, mid-budget and highly intimate affair, set mostly within an unnamed seaside city and driven mostly by the growing bond between hustling magician David Ou (Xu) and runaway schoolgirl Diudiu (Zhang Zifeng).

It’s hardly a coincidence that the film’s Chinese title is the same as the long-used translation for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Just like that 1936 classic, Fake Fiction makes an attempt to chronicle the struggle of the under-class in a society that has seen turbo-charged economic growth. But there’s no place for the Little Tramp’s naivete in the 21st century: the victims have taken up the cynicism of the prevailing system, with Ou more a con-man than an illusionist and Diudiu a troublesome brat who descends on the trickster’s apartment one day, claiming to be his daughter.

The Paulette Goddard character in Modern Times is split into two here: while Diudiu fills the part of the orphan-in-distress, the guardian angel that gives the protagonist a job and an opportunity to thrive is manifested here in the form of Mao Na (Vanessa Wang Xuanyu), a sharply dressed (read: open-necked shirts, short skirts, stilettos) artistic director of the cultural subsidiary of a business corporation – a capacity which belies, as she later admits to Ou, a long struggle starting from her days as a nightclub dancer.

The trio is forced together as Mao commissions Ou to perform a trick that will make a big, seaside religious statue disappear. Thinking of grabbing the initial down payment and run, Ou finds himself duped when his agent actually takes off for Dubai with the money before he can – which leads to the magician having to really make the impossible trick work with Diudiu’s help.

The bickering inevitably is replaced by affection, of course, but there are also moments that actually stray off the formula: one of the film’s odd but effectively disturbing scenes involve Mao being coerced into getting up on a table to dance for the tycoon bankrolling the business deals of her creepy boss (Zhang Songwen). With Ou’s clownish antics failing to deflect the situation, the stand-off only leads to a chastening, dignity-stripping experience.

It’s one of a few scenes that look quite out of place in Fake Fiction’s oddball, odd-couple comedy formula – and it’s also a sign of how the filmmakers tried to approach the material in different ways, but were unable to deliver a coherent style, both in terms of storytelling – the conclusion of the story demands extreme suspension of disbelief from the viewer – but also in terms of visuals. While some of Shao Weihong’s handheld camera work gives certain exterior scenes a gritty, earthier look, the same technique is out of place for the sequences filmed indoors.

But at least Fake Fiction can count on a bankable performance from the perennially charismatic Xu, who is best here when caught in acerbic exchanges with the natural child-star debutant Zhang Zifeng. While not exactly the full-fledged real deal – melodrama still takes a bow here with the now inevitable scenes of a guilty and crying man searching for lost girl in torrential rain – Fake Fiction is a move, a small step maybe, towards comedy motored by the tears of a socially marginalized clown.

Production Companies: Zhujiang Film Group, Dadi Century Films, Light and Magic of China Cast: Xu Zheng, Zhang Zifeng, Zhang Songwen, Wang Xuanyu

Director: Shao Xiaoli (as “Chief Director”), Du Peng

Producers: Liu Hongbing, Liu Yong, Tian Zhenshan

Executive Producers: Lin Hai, Shao Xiaoli

Screenplay: Du Peng, Ning Dai, Shao Xiaoli, Gao Wei

Director of Photography: Shao Weihong

Art Director: Weng Yu Music: Guan Peng

Editor: Jiang Yong

In Mandarin

Running Time 93 minutes