'North by Northeast': Tokyo Review

North by Northeast
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
The original setting and enjoyable characters make this a well-made divertissement

A homey and humorous Chinese detective yarn set in the far Northeast

While Black Coal, Thin Ice (this year’s Berlinale Golden Bear winner) is still circulating at festivals and art venues, along comes another homey detective yarn from China’s great northern hinterlands.

One imagines director Zhang Bingjian tipping his hat to Alfred Hitchcock in the amusingly titled North by Northeast (Dong bei pian bei), in which a fat but cunning local police chief sets out to trap a serial rapist who is terrorizing a village. There’s plenty of humor, striking characters and atmosphere, but not much noir or social commentary in Zhang’s second feature, making it less intriguing. Still it is an enjoyable romp through some rarely seen landscapes.

The opening shots of the isolated country village where two huge hogs are copulating under the watchful eye of an old granny bring to mind novelist Mo Yan’s fictional Northeast Township. It’s 1978, two years after the Cultural Revolution, and the granny is actually Cai Bing (actress Li Bin of The Full Circle and The Road Home), a former professor who has been ousted from her university. Now exiled to the village, she breeds pigs, practices traditional Chinese medicine and lives with her pretty, adopted daughter, soon to get married.

But a mysterious rapist is on the loose, attacking different women in their beds at night, and the girl is on his list. They attempt to hide the rape from Capt. Li (Ban Zan) and his incompetent men, who move into Cai’s house for a month, while they try to catch the criminal. All their traps fail miserably, including a comically bungled multi-village manhunt.

Most of the film is played for humor like a displaced Czech comedy, with Li and his staff taking footprints and making useless deductions, accusing the wrong man and letting the right one slip through their fingers. Happily, the more intelligent Cai turns into an amateur sleuth, a likable Miss Marple figure who becomes Capt. Li’s unofficial consultant during the investigation. Cai’s warm, broad smile is reassuring and her diagnosis convincing if irrelevant: yin-yang imbalances lead to sexual aggression. And also to its opposite: Capt. Li has impotency woes, but refuses Cai’s treatment, which she gives to her hogs with great success. Li earns some respect for his stubborn, country means of deduction, but his Oliver Hardy face and frame leave little room for charisma.

The film’s attitude towards the Cultural Revolution is surprisingly relaxed, almost flippant, and casually plays with the famous phrase "the revolution is not a dinner party." On the other hand, it steers clear of abrasive social commentary, and even Cai’s banishment as an undesirable intellectual is defused, because it is about to come to an end.

Cinematographer Zhang Ji gives the story a distinctive look with dazzling fall colors and figures outlined against a deep blue sky. The score includes Northeast folk songs and happy harmonic music, while Hu Miaoshu’s sweeping score hits just the right note of irony played over the barnyard.

Production companies: Artemple Productions, Western Movie Group
Ban Zan, Li Bin, Lai Jiatong, Zhang Hewen, Liu Weibo
Zhang Bingjian
Zhang Bingjian, Yuan Daju
Producers: Lu Lei, Gordon Gao
Director of photography: Zhang Ji
Production designer: Dou Jun
Editors: Fang Lei, Sun Xiuheng
Music: Hu Miaoshu
Casting: Mo Lan
Sales Agent: Artemple Productions Beijing
No rating, 116 minutes