'Free and Easy': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Free and Easy Sundance Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Sundance

Free and Easy Sundance Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017

Puts the "dead" in deadpan.

Chinese director Geng Jun's film is a deadpan look at petty criminals in a small town in China's wintry Northeast.

A former industrial town in northeastern China, now deserted and covered in snow, is the picturesque backdrop of the unexpectedly funny and dryly absurd Free and Easy from Chinese director Geng Jun (Youth). The film focuses on a small cast of rural characters, most of them crooked in one way or another and thus all deserving of one another, as they chase each other around town. Shot with a painterly eye and a deadpan sense of humor, this modest indie pic should be of interest on the festival circuit and makes one curious about what its director will do next.

Zhang Ziyong (Zhang Ziyong, a non-professional actor like everyone else here) is a soap salesman, or at least he pretends to be one. His unsuspecting clients are asked to smell his wares, which knocks them out, so Zhang can rob them of their money and possessions. Also roaming around the empty streets of the town are a Buddhist monk (Xu Gang) looking to sell lucky talismans at hefty prices; a Christian simpleton looking for his mother who disappeared seven years earlier (Gu Benbin); a couple of bumbling local cops (Zhang Xun, Yuan Liguo); and a landlady (Wang Xuxu) who takes in the salesman as a lodger and her husband (Xue Baohe), who works for the local roads and bridges authorities and who’s worried about one of the gigantic roadside trees that was stolen.

Free and Easy — the title is a translation of an expression from northern China — isn’t a character drama, and as such, the film isn’t much interested in character development. Instead, through its series of semi-connected vignettes of encounters between the various members of the small cast, it tries to paint a picture of a thoroughly corrupt society in which each person is left to fend for their own and in which petty crimes are not an exception but the norm. Even those meaning well don’t always manage to make the right decisions. In this context, the backdrop of derelict and forsaken houses, covered in virginal snow, thus takes on an added meaning, functioning like the visual manifestation of a crumbling, amoral and cold society.

Though the film’s underlying theme might be quite serious, the material is frequently spiked with unexpected moments of deadpan humor, such as when the soap salesman asks three unsuspecting men to smell his wares. Two fall immediately to the ground after a single sniff of the scam wares he presents them with, though the third victim unfortunately turns out to have a cold.

Another frequent source of humor (and, occasionally, also of drama) is Geng’s expert use of offscreen space. The two policemen, for example, seem to be idly chatting away at their desks for a while, with one asking the other for the umpteenth time if his colleague doesn’t have any pills he could share. Then it turns out that the vague, out-of-focus element on the far right of the frame was actually someone sitting in the room with them that they’ve simply been ignoring.

Similarly, the first scene in which Zhang and the landlady’s husband strike up a conversation, with the latter just outside the frame, sitting on the toilet, suggest that Geng and cinematographer Wang Qeihua gave each seemingly straightforward shot a lot of thought in terms of camera placement and framing. A predilection for symmetrical compositions further highlights how the film is more of a formal and heightened work rather than one of the many naturalistic dramas that populate the independent scene in the Middle Kingdom.

Though Free and Easy finally doesn’t quite come together in the end, this is a fascinating calling card for Geng, who shows an impressive mastery of the formal elements of cinema and a talent for boiling down complex societal issues and ideas into sober and seemingly straightforward scenes.

Production company: Blackfin Culture & Media Co
Cast: Xu Gang, Zhang Zhiyong, Xue Baohe, Wang Xuxu, Gu Benbin, Zhang Xun, Yuan Liguo
Director: Geng Jun
Screenplay: Liu Bing, Feng Yu Hua, Geng Jun
Producers: Wang Zijian, Wang Xuebo
Executive producer: Zhang Xianmin
Director of photography: Wang Qeihua
Costume designer: Tang Xiaoshan
Editors: Guo Xiaodong, Zhong Yijuan
Music: Second Hand Rose Band
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

97 minutes