‘Mr. No Problem’ (‘Bu cheng wen ti de wen ti’): Film Review | Tokyo 2016

©Youth Film Studio
This arty, stylized political allegory may go over the heads of Western audiences.

Screenwriter-turned-director Mei Feng stylishly adapts a tale by literary giant Lao She set in wartime China.

A wily but likeable manager is hired by landowners to run a farm but when his inefficiency becomes obvious, he proves impossible to get rid of, in the wry political satire Mr. No Problem (Bu cheng wen ti de wen ti). The material, adapted from a story set in 1940’s China by revered writer Lao She, is handled with respect and originality by debuting director Mei Feng. But with a running time stretched to two and a half-hours and the coy use of monochrome cinematography and formal, fixed framing to set a period mood, the film is going to be hard to see outside of festivals like Tokyo, where it was a good fit for competition.

Mei Feng has hitherto been known as the screenwriter on some of Lou Ye’s boldest films dealing with politics and sex, like Spring Fever and Summer Palace. Though sex is notably absent here, the struggle for power on a farm in the Chongqing provinces stands in for what one assumes is a contemporary political critique. Here Asian audiences will be at a distinct advantage in picking up the film’s references, while Westerners may miss the point altogether.

As unseen bombs drop on China during the second Sino-Japanese War, the middle-aged, bespectacled Director Ding (comedian Wei Fan) runs a farm outside Chongqing as his personal fiefdom. The slippery stratagems he adopts to keep from being ousted read like a cynical modern business manual. Generous and accommodating to a fault with his workers presumably to buy their loyalty, he allows them to pilfer eggs and vegetables while he turns a blind eye. They are late risers, do very little work, and like to play mahjong, sometimes with Ding. Small wonder, then, that the farm is operating at a loss.

The owners, led by tough Boss Tong (Feng Mantian) and wealthy stockholder Xu (Wang Kanwei), are displeased. Miss Tong, the boss’s unmarried daughter, notes that her dowry is dwindling. Seeing his position threatened, Ding’s survival strategy is to buy gifts for everyone, particularly for his patron Third Madam (i.e., Xu’s third wife, played by Peking Opera star Shi Yihong, which must explain why, at one point, she bursts into song.) He also splurges on lavish birthday parties and the like, with predictable results on the farm’s balance sheets.

As a crowning folly – or is it calculated from the start? – he takes in the good-looking young Qin (Zhang Chao), an overbearing, self-proclaimed poet and artist who has been dumped by his previous patron. Qin is a classic freeloader and his supposedly wealthy father never sends him any money for the rent, but still Ding lets him stay on.

The second part of the film describes Qin’s rise and fall from favor as he courts Miss Tong and organizes a disastrous art show, and the third and last part details the arrival of the new foreign-educated farm manager Mr. Yau (Wang Hanbang) and his delicate wife (Yin Tao). Yau, a new-style technocrat, is incredibly straight-arrow and efficient, and in under a week he has the farm approaching ship-shape. How Ding manages to oust him and claw his way back would teach Machiavelli a trick or two.

The actors are beautifully directed and the characters come across vividly. The mood is a subtle balance of drama and humor as we gape at the sheer audacity of Ding’s schemes.

But the radical technical choices take some getting used to. Zhu Jinjing’s seductive black and white cinematography is sophisticated and attractive. Though not as crazily stylized as Feng Xiaogang’s recent social satire I Am Not Madame Bovary (which also starred Wei Fan), the film's use of fixed camera and long shots do weigh the scenes down as the minutes tick by.

A Youth Film Studio, Kingway Communication, Beijing Shengyu Film & TV Culture Investment, Mare Nostrum presentation of an Atrio Media production.

Cast: Fan Wei, Yin Tao, Shi Yihong, Zhang Chao, Wang Hanbang, Wang Zitong, Jiang Zhongwei, Feng Mantian, Wang Kanwei
Director: Feng Mei
Screenwriters: Mei Feng, Huang Shi, based on a short story by Lao She
Producers: Hou Guangming, Wu Manfang
Co-producers: Guo Yonghao, Chow Keung
Executive producer: Yu Jianhong
Director of photography: Zhu Jinjing
Production designers: Wang Zhi, Zhang Danqing
Editor: Liao Chingsong
Music: Feng Mantian
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (competition)
144 minutes