'Looking for Lucky': Film Review | Filmart 2018

Courtesy of HKIFF/Hong Kong International Film Festival
A sunny facade belies a biting satire.

Writer-director Jiang Jiachen makes a mature feature debut with this gentle satire of China’s emergent culture of opportunism.

Making its world premiere at Filmart ahead of its bow at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Looking for Lucky is a blast of fresh air for China’s independent film scene, what with its dearth of gray subdivisions and bright images, which could be ironic given the familiar subject matter about rampant opportunism and a young generation at the mercy of old traditions and cronyism. Following a student just ahead of graduation as he angles for a safe, smart job — a decision that could impact the rest of his life beyond just professional fulfillment — the film toggles between absurdism and dour drama without ever losing sight of the father-son relationship that underpins the narrative.

Though likely to be a source of distress for dog lovers, writer, director and editor Jiang Jiachen turns in a strong debut, composed of just 61 long takes. That construction allows Jiang to create a loose, naturalistic narrative with authentic performances that capture the rhythm of contemporary Chinese life in the rambling, verbose conversations that carry the film. Looking for Lucky has a good chance at winning audiences across Asia, where the story and the main character’s struggles are going to be instantly recognizable. A long life on the festival circuit and art house release in key overseas markets isn’t out of the question with some careful marketing.

Set in sunny, leafy northeastern Shenyang (Jiang’s hometown), grad student Guangsheng (Ding Xinhe) loses his professor’s white bulldog, Lucky, and as he believes caring for the animal is his ticket to the professor’s favor — and eventually a secure teaching post that will also look good to potential spouses — he enlists his cranky, blue-collar father (Yu Hai) to help him find it. The cops brush him off, and Guangsheng’s print shop-owning buddy points out he absolutely must offer a reward to anyone who might find the pooch. As the days go by and there’s no sign of Lucky, Guangsheng’s stress levels go through the roof and Lucky becomes a symbol of all that’s wrong with life in modern China. Without the professor’s recommendation, Guangsheng will probably have to find the cash to buy said job, money neither he nor his father has.

The search for Lucky makes up only half of the pic (off his leash, Lucky headed home to wait for his human), with the cutthroat world Guangsheng has to navigate to secure employment and the resentments shared by father and son being the fallout Jiang explores in the back half. Against the saturated color and blue skies of Jiang Jianbing’s cinematography, this is a relentlessly dark, mercenary world, wherein everything is about money: The lost dog fliers need a reward; a helpful bystander who saw Lucky run down the street expects compensation for the hot tip; Guangsheng is suckered into another puppy when some work men who found “Lucky” threaten to cook it if they’re not paid; and a bullying classmate enjoys passive aggressively pointing out Guangsheng’s meager background. When a potential love interest usurps Guangsheng for the job in a way he could never hope to compete with, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and he makes plans to leave town.

Jiang’s gentle satire is really allowed to blossom with the time it is given to breathe during those long takes, a mature creative choice for a young filmmaker to make. It was the right one this time around, and it effortlessly immerses viewers into the story's opportunistic environment. But by interspersing Guangsheng’s dilemmas with sequences at home involving his father, another picture emerges — one of a gap between the acceptable expectations each of the men has (or had) for his life. Ding and Yu have a nicely pitched dynamic informed by impatience, ignorance and a host of other emotions. When Guangsheng finally explodes in anger for his dad’s continued dismissal of the importance of the missing dog, it is Yu’s stunned silence and hurt collapse into a chair that seals the scene. Other tech specs are strong.

Production companies: Youku Information Technology (Beijing) Co., Heyi Pictures Co.
Cast: Ding Xinhe, Yu Hai, Da Bing, Dong Lifan, Dong Longbin, Jia Tianming, Huang Jingxin
Director-screenwriter-editor: Jiang Jiachen
Producer: Liu Jingya
Executive producer: Liu
Kailuo
Director of photography: Jiang Jianbing
Production designer: Yang Jiahui
Venue: Filmart
World sales: Good Move Media

In Putonghua and Shenyang dialect
101 minutes