'To Kill a Watermelon' ('Sha Gua'): Film Review

Courtesy of First International Film Festival
A cutting if overly preachy social critique.

Chinese filmmaker Gao Zehao's satire about a farmer's growing awareness of the injustice around him will bow at the Montreal World Film Festival after its prize-winning premiere at China's FIRST Film Festival.

In his director's notes, Gao Zehao describes his latest film as "a story about reawakening of a rebellious consciousness among people in the lowest rung of society." The message comes across loud and clear. Revolving around a man's transformation from meek melon vendor to angst-ridden fighter for his own rights, To Kill a Watermelon features corrupt cadres, unsympathetic cops, a questionable execution and the symbolic burning of a banknote featuring the image of China's Great Hall of the People.

Unambiguous in its critique about how blind obedience props up injustice and tyranny, To Kill a Watermelon received the "A Certain Stance" award at the FIRST Film Festival. Though the cutting-edge fest and jury headed by the once-banned director Lou Ye have embraced the film, the country's censors might not be as generous. Its damning verdict of the status quo will probably prove a bit too explosive for the authorities in the run-up to the Chinese Communist Party's 19th National Congress this fall.

While a domestic Chinese release is basically off the table, the pic might woo festival programmers willing to invest in its subversive political spirit and overlook its aesthetic flaws. Static, talky and at times looking more like a stage play, Watermelon unspooled at FIRST in a low-quality digital print where certain scenes are visibly pixelated. It remains to be seen whether these problems will be addressed in time for the film's international premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival.

Based on a short story by Dong Libu, Watermelon centers on Chen Cao (Dong Yong), a farmer who earns a living selling watermelons in a roadside stall set up next to his modest allotment. A simple man raised to obey those above his station, he barely whimpers as he is repeatedly taken advantage of by those in power — in this case, the village chief (Wu Ming), who has been "buying" his melons for years with IOUs he never intends to pay back.

Chen's awakening begins when a mysterious motorcyclist drops by and, after eating a watermelon, asks whether he could rest a little at the stall. When the man wakes up, he begins to tell Chen a story about a pig who gets himself into trouble by learning how to whistle (a tale penned by the well-known Chinese satirist Wang Xiaobo). Without finishing it, however, the man leaves in a hurry; noticing that the man has dropped a 100-yuan banknote on his way out, Chen chases him down the road but fails to catch up.

As Chen walks back, he watches a car plow straight into his stall. As the driver hides away in the vehicle, an apologetic young man gets out and offers to pay him much more than the stall costs — on the condition that the farmer doesn't tell anyone that his boss, a local official, was actually behind the wheel. As subservient as ever, Chen agrees as he reflects on his close brush with death and how his mysterious customer may have saved him by getting him out of his stall.

Chen is quietly shattered when he learns his inadvertent savior is on the run after murdering his abusive village chief, his bullying son and six others in their clan. Following the man's arrest, trial and conviction, Chen begins to question his own compliance with authority. His doubts snowball as he hears of how the courts ignore that man's mitigating circumstances and hands down a death sentence.

Staying true to the satirical tone of the source material, director Gao — whose first feature was the more commercial 2012 thriller Witness — deploys plenty of deadpan humor in Watermelon. With the film's straight-on shots and simple cuts, Gao and DP Zhao Long manage to establish a seemingly serene but rigorously ordered social realm. While the screenplay can be excessively expositional — Chen always speaks his thoughts aloud either to himself or to his wife — the pic is graced with some human empathy through Dong Yong's nuanced turn as a country bumpkin undergoing his own rite of political passage.

Production company: Beijing Xinliliang Entertainment
Cast: Dong Yong, Liu Hua, Wu Ming
Directors-screenwriter: Gao Zehao, based on a short story by Dong Libu
Director of photography: Zhao Long
Production designer: Li Jianing
Editors: Tao Yu
Music: Liu Tao
Sales: Go Global

In Mandarin
88 minutes