Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Missing Gun (Xun Qiang)

I thought it was about time I offered a Chinese recommendation in my occasional 'Film reviews' strand.

I do watch as many Chinese films as I can. There's a film club here in Beijing called Cherry Lane Movies, which shows recent Chinese films with English sub-titles on a big screen. I go through spells where I'm off there every week for a month or two; then again, I go through spells of ennui where I just can't summon the motivation to endure the long schlepp over to the other side of town and the two hours of bum-numbing torture on their rock-hard seats. Most of the time, I have to say, it is a bit of a chore. There is a reason why not much mainland Chinese cinema gets any distribution overseas.

However, amid all the plotless, meandering dross, the occasional gem shines all the more brightly.

When asked what is the best Chinese film I have seen since coming to live here, there is an easy answer. 'The Missing Gun' is far and away the most impressive film I've enjoyed in the almost 5 years of my intermittent Cherry Laning - thoroughly original, delightfully quirky, full of energy and invention, gorgeously photographed, superbly directed and edited (early on, it uses a lot of the hyper-kinetic 'music video' type tricks that we saw in 'City of God'), and - unusually, within my experience of Chinese films - sometimes just laugh-out-loud funny.

Ma Shan, a small-town cop, gets wildly drunk at his sister's wedding party and wakes the next morning to discover that he has somehow mislaid his service revolver. Realising that this blunder could jeopardise his previously distinguished career, he races around town in a panic, re-tracing his steps of the previous evening, asking everyone he meets if they have any idea where the gun is, but getting no leads. Things get worse for Ma when a femme fatale, his former love, suddenly shows up in town again, as the mistress of the local big-shot; and before long, she is dead, apparently shot with Ma's gun - so he falls under suspicion himself, and the pressure is intensified to recover the gun before anyone else is killed.

Yes, it's a fairly slender plot, improbable, melodramatic - but this is really just a convenient structural device. The adoption of a well-worn 'Western' genre - the detective story - actually gives the film a coherence and purposefulness, a narrative logic that Chinese cinema often seems to lack. This film is, however, far, far more than just a routine police procedural. Rather, it is primarily a social comedy of small-town life, interwoven with a touching study of Ma's struggling marriage - but executed with exhilarating verve and originality, and full of bizarre and surreal touches, elements of magical realism. It's thriller, satire and domestic drama rolled into one - but it works: highly amusing, but also ultimately rather poignant. (I think the comedy is mostly very accessible to a foreign audience, although you probably appreciate it even more if you've spent some time in China. My favourite line in it is "Don't use the brick"; but you have to have been here a while to get that.)

Ma is movingly played by the always compelling Jiang Wen (slightly portly, ugly handsome, a sweaty everyman), a giant of mainland Chinese cinema - their equivalent of Robert De Niro or Gerard Depardieu. And the film is directed (and, I think, also written by - although I can't find the name of the novel it was adapted from) by Lu Chuan - definitely a name to watch out for (to my knowledge, he has thus far only made two feature films: the other one is my second favourite Chinese film in the last 5 years!).

Yes, if you want evidence that Chinese cinema is capable of more than dour studies of urban alienation or colourful riots of martial arts escapism, this is it. See 'The Missing Gun' - and let me know what you think.

1 comment:

Froog said...

I am informed by people "in the know" that it is an open secret in the Chinese film industry that this film was basically directed by its star, Jiang Wen - temporarily out of favour and unable to get a licence to direct, after his debut about the Japanese occupation Devils On The Doorstep had somehow offended the powers-that-be.

I can't swear as to whether that's true, but if it is, Lu Chuan has been milking the critical success of this film quite improperly to boost his own career since.

More recently I heard a rumour that during the filming of Kekexili (also a film I loved) in Tibet, he was laid low with altitude sickness most of the time, and suffered some kind of mild heart attack - and thus most of the "direction" was handled by his DP.

I wonder if his new one, Nanjing, Nanjing is any good? And if it's really his own work??

I may find out this weekend.