'Mr. Six': TIFF Review

Mr Six Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A mixed-genre Chinese dramedy packed with colorful characters.

Honor among thieves is a thing of the past in the new China, where cash trumps respect.

Flying the flag in prestige slots at Venice and Toronto, Guan Hu’s Mr. Six (Lao Pao Er) is China’s top festival entry of the moment. The theme is a generational clash of values, which plays out through a clutch of geriatric old-style gangsters who are called out of retirement to rescue the son of their former leader. Densely structured with a dozen vivid characters and a memorably nuanced central performance by Beijing writer-director-actor Feng Xiaogang, it has much to admire. Still, with its devil-may-care switching between serious, comic and surreal scenes, and much of the comedy being broadly Chinese, it’s not the easiest film to cozy up to. The two-hour-plus running time will make itself felt even on well-intentioned art house audiences. The picture is scheduled for a year-end release in China, where it should find its biggest fans.

Director Guan Hu has a habit of mixing comedy and drama in historical films like Cow and The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, both set during World War II. Here, the time is now and the place colorful backstreet Beijing. We find former criminal Xuejun (Feng), better known by his underworld moniker Mr. Six, harmlessly passing his golden years as the neighborhood peacekeeper of a closely-knit hutong, or alleyway. Even the cops respect him. Other old cronies living in the hood include Scrapper, Lampshade and his lady-love Chatterbox (Xu Qing).

The drama kicks off when his son Xiaobo (young actor-singer Li Yifeng) is abducted by a fancy-pants gang of speed racers, all arrogant Daddy’s boys who dote on their shiny new cars and souped-up engines. Their ringleader is the 20-something Tan Xiaofei (Chinese-Canadian actor Kris Wu), who wears his hair bone white and postures unbearably, in contrast to the naturalistic style of the son of the hutong, Xiaobo. The latter has committed the double offense of sleeping with the rich kid’s girlfriend and scratching the door of his Ferrari. It’s hard to believe these punks are really dangerous since they act like stereotyped TV teens, gaga on the fast and furious. But their fathers’ money commandeers real bruisers, as Mr. Six and his old-timers discover to their pain and sorrow.

Clearly there's a metaphor flashing here: the loyalty and honor codes of yore have been trampled by the soulless winners of the new Chinese economy. The idea that an honorable fellow like Mr. Six is forced to eat humble pie in front of a swaggering brat with a Ferrari and has to run around town begging for $15,000 to right his son’s wrongs tells it all. The ex-gangster is so morally self-defined that he rather inexplicably refuses a generous offer from the "capitalist" crook-turned-businessman Matchstick, presumably because he isn’t polite enough and no longer follows the honor code to the letter.

It’s no problem getting the audience on Mr. Six’s side thanks to the well-rounded, warm-hearted Feng nostalgically touting old-time values like some samurai time traveler. But it’s a stretch to surrender to the silly jokes, for instance, Mr. Six’s intellectually challenged garage man buddy who tries to repair the scratched car and ruins the whole paint job. Then there is a giant caged ostrich that somehow gets out and surreally runs down the street, pursued by the police. It might be a stand-in for Mr. Six’s yearning to bust free from the quiet life and get on the road again.  

Another problem is his weak heart, which is signaled multiple times before it becomes a plot point. He isn’t as spry and limber as he used to be and, disappointingly enough, a scant couple of martial arts fight scenes are over almost as soon as they’ve begun. One wishes Tony Leung’s aging Grand Master or Daniel Craig’s rusty James Bond would pop by for a few minutes. Instead, as the big rumble approaches, it’s obvious it could be a suicide mission for the cardiopathic hero. The grand finale on a frozen lake is indulgently stretched out through editing and slowmo as though it was Alexander Nevsky’s last battle on the ice, but the result lacks sophistication and the forced emotion draws no tears.

Where Guan excels is in straight dramatization, like the moving, beautifully acted reconciliation in a restaurant between gruff father and impatient son. Scenes like these draw on production designer Yang Haoyu’s meticulously homey interiors that lend authentic atmosphere to the whole film.
Production company: Huayi Brothers Media Corp.

Cast: Feng Xiaogang, Li Yifeng, Zhang Hanyu, Liu Hua, Xu Qing, Kris Wu, Liang Jing, Xu Quing

Director: Guan Hu

Screenwriters: Duan Hu, Dong Runnian

Producer: Wang Zhonglei

Executive producers: Zhang Dajun, Zhu Wenjiu 

Director of photography: Luo Pan

Production designer: Yang Haoyu

Costume designer: Liang Tingting

Editor: Zhang Wen

Music: Dou Peng

World sales: Huayi Brothers Intl., IM Global   

No rating, 134 minutes