'Nezha': Busan Review

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
A strong start can’t make up for a distracting loss of focus.

Li Xiaofeng makes his debut with an unconventional coming-of-age story anchored by two eye-catching newcomers.

Named for an agitating mythic Chinese deity, Li Xiaofeng makes his feature debut with the coming-of-age drama Nezha, a film that bursts from the gate and starts strong before tripping over itself and spiraling into muddled artistry. Based on a book by Lu Yao, Li and co-writers Wang Mu and Pan Yu relocate the action to Anhui from Henan and follow two teen girls as they become fast friends and drift apart during the tumultuous 1990s. though the leads are relatively compelling and the story blessedly steers clear of “girl” issues—fighting over boys, fretting over their appearance—Nezha ultimately goes nowhere and betrays its early promise. The film will go as far as Asian festival events will take it and not much past that.

The complex dynamics that underpin teenaged female friendship is, at least initially, at the heart of the story. The film starts with a thirtysomething Xiaolu (Zhong Zheng) visiting her old hometown as a young woman’s body is prepared for storage at the morgue before flashing back to young Xiaolu (Li Haofei), a construction worker’s daughter and a bit of a rebel who transfers into Baocheng High School. Her first contact is with enigmatic class monitor Xiaobing (Li Jiaqi), who appreciates Xiaolu’s sense of irreverence. They bond fast and tight over intellectual endeavors like authors and amusing bratty moments like pilfering from the faculty’s lunch boxes. The first half of the film focuses on this deepening relationship, a comfortable, mutually supportive and rewarding one and leads Li and Li are utterly believable in their parts. But the second half is heavy with Xiaobing’s increasing contrariness and Xiaolu’s inability to connect with her. As they age into their late teens, Xiaolu gets thrown out of school for insulting a teacher, finds herself becoming interested in boys, specifically Xu Jie (Xin Peng), and Xiaobing struggles with the emotional impact of her parents’ divorce and her physical distance from her best friend, all of which put stress on the girls’ relationship. At some (unclear) point in time, Xiaobing disappears.

That may sound like an intriguing premise with plenty of space to explore the inner lives of rebellious young women at a time when China was experiencing its first growing pains. It should be, but it’s not. After Li loses tract of what Nezha is saying and where it’s going the film falls into a ditch of excessive stylization despite cinematographer Jeowi Verhoeven’s impressive compositions. The narrative jumps don’t help the cause. At one point Xiaobing is in nursing school, a moment later she’s in the army (maybe?) then she’s back to interning at an OB-GYN clinic. When these transitions happened and why is a mystery, as is where Xiaolu was during these periods. The parallels between the social fluidity fo the time and Xiaobing’s distress over what she feels is hypocrisy on her parents’ part feels shoehorned into the story. On top of that, Li ditches the early naturalism that allowed young actresses Li and Li so much room to breathe and opts for a theatrical tone that is mannered to the point of plodding. Buried beneath the murky bells and whistles is a story that is too often overlooked in contemporary Chinese cinema—or at least half of one.

Production company: Beijing BHBD Culture Diffusion Co., Ltd, Way Good Entertainment Co., Ltd.

Cast: Li Jiaqi, Li Haofei, Chen Jin, Xing Peng, Li Huan, Zhong Zheng, Wang Yong

Director:  Li Xiaofeng

Screenwriter: Wang Mu, Pan Yu, Li Xiaofeng, based on the novel by Lu Yao

Producer: Shen Yang

Director of photography: Jeowi Verhoeven

Production designer: Zhong Cheng

Editor: Liu Yueyue

Music: Drew Hanratty

World sales: Way Good Entertainment Co., Ltd.


No rating, 98 minutes