'One Night on the Wharf': Film Review | Busan 2017

Courtesy Busan International Film Festival
Xi Haozhou, Liang Jingdong, Han Sanping, and Gao Bo in 'One Night on the Wharf.'
Like poetry, a love-it or hate-it proposition.

Prominent Chinese poet Han Dong makes his first foray into filmmaking with help from producer Jia Zhangke.

Bureaucracy, intelligentsia and petty crime collide during the course of one eventful night in an anonymous, nondescript provincial Chinese town in Han Dong’s One Night on the Wharf, the filmmaking debut by the prominent poet and avant-garde writer. Making its world premiere at BIFF’s New Currents section, Wharf was produced by Chinese indie titan Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) as part of his emerging filmmakers’ Wings Project, and it’s easy to see what attracted him to the material (the two have also worked together in the past). Though the film is intensely literary, it has Jia’s fingerprints all over it. It’s hard to imagine the film tearing up the box office in China due to its pitch black humor and coded critique, regardless of Jia or Han’s renown, and indeed a release date at home is still unconfirmed. One Night on the Wharf is nonetheless prime festival stuff, and Jia’s involvement could lead it to limited art house release across Asia and overseas. It’s imperfect, but still worth a look.

One Night on the Wharf’s literary pedigree is clear from the start, as a poem about living in the moment is recited over images of passengers disembarking a train, coming into and going out of focus as they move toward the camera down the stairway. The action then switches to worldly poet Dingzi (Chai Chenggang) holding court in a park and swapping stanzas with some other intellectuals, among them Wang Shu and Ouyang (Liang Jingdong and Han Sanming, both Jia regulars). Before long it’s time for the visiting Dingzi to leave, and the group, along with fanboy Xia Haiyan (Si Haozhao) escort him to the ferry. At the wharf, and having missed his boat, Dingzi flirts with a young woman working a kiosk — via poetry of course — before running afoul (for reasons unknown) of local thug Baipi (Gao Bo). At this point, Wharf feels like it’s going to be a contemporary chamber piece that unfolds at the wharf, as the blustery Baipi accuses Dingzi of having "something" in his luggage, and has him hauled off to the local security office. But at this point the chamber piece ends.

The trip to see low level security officer Xiao Li (Chen Ji) brings the story’s third tier into play. Xiao Li is one of the thousands of unofficial "police" who pick up the slack in China when official law enforcement is stretched thin. Han has argued these untrained and unlicensed "officers" often make things worse, and that’s exactly what happens. The film finally comes full circle when it concludes on the next morning’s boat, where Dingzi, his bags, the poets, and an unconscious Baipi converge once again.

At its core a Chinese slice of life satire, the stagey One Night on the Wharf isn’t content to be easily labeled or defined, fluttering back and forth between satire and social commentary, as well as between assured artistry and unsteady experimentation. Sequences that highlight the uneasy dynamic among the bureaucrats, intellectuals and small-time hoodlums that pervades this town (and by extension, China), the wounded pride, and petty resentments are interspersed with moments of truly inspired, absurd comedy and aimless observation (Baipi’s inept posse are especially distinguished in their bumbling). The end result is a structural disjointedness that does resemble verse, Han’s poetic tendencies giving the film a curious tone that mirrors the very complexities and peculiarities related to class, opportunity and perception within Chinese society Han is exploring.

Set to a jaunty, often hilariously incongruent score by Zhou Yunpeng, the mix of semi-professional and non-professional actors turn in the kind of naturalistic performances that can be either the bane or boon to films like this. Fortunately, it’s a boon here, with Gao in particular managing a nicely nuanced portrait of a man in a dead end town, living in the shadow of better peers, bitter over the minor differences that separate him from the respectability of his old friend Xiao Li. He could have been a contender. Also strong is Si as Xia Haiyan, a poetry fan who challenges gender and sexuality expectations and who turns a spotlight on the town’s homophobia, and Liang and Chai, as the proud intellectuals whose discomfort around Xia puts that intellectualism into question.

Han’s experiment, for the most part, works, despite a few creative missteps. The finale is clumsy rather than iconoclastic, and smacks of uncertainty. What Han was attempting with the jubilant water fight is a mystery and doesn’t really dovetail with all that came before. Tech specs are strong across the board.

Production company: Emei Film Group, Ten Poets Film, Shanghai Alibaba Pictures

Cast: Chai Chenggang, Liang Jingdong, Han Sanming, Gao Bo, Chen Ji, Si Haozhao

Director: Han Dong

Screenwriter: Han Dong

Producer: Jia Zhangke

Executive producer: Han Mei, Chen Xin, Liu Kailuo, Jia Zhangke, Xiao Yan, Li Mingyang

Director of photography: Liu Yonghong

Production designer: Bai Hao

Editor: Wang Yuan

Music: Zhou Yunpeng

World sales: Xstream Pictures

In Putonghua

No rating, 99 minutes