Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
MWFF ’15: North by Northeast
Cai Bing is sort of like a Chinese Miss Marple,
but in addition her fellow villagers’ business, she also knows a heck of a lot
about breeding hogs. It was not always so. The former university professor was
sent down to the provincial breeding station during the height of the Cultural
Revolution, but she adapted to her new environment remarkably well. She has
just been rehabilitated, but before she returns to her old life she will help
the local bumbling police captain hunt down a mysterious sex offender in Zhang
Bingjian’s North by Northeast (trailer here), which screens during
the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival.
By applying Chinese medicine to pig husbandry,
Cai produced some big hogs. She also found more personal contentment than she
expected, even “adopting” Xiao Cui as her granddaughter. Frankly, she has made
the best of the Cultural Revolution, all things considered, but she still does
not suffer fools gladly. According to her withering judgement, Li Zhanshan, the
village constable, is one such idiot.
Li and his tiny militia have been chasing the
serial rapist known as “Liumang,” a loaded colloquial term meaning thug, pervert,
or something in between. Unfortunately, the case gets personal for Cai when
Xiao is raped by Liumang. Using Chinese medicine and deductive reasoning, Cai
will try to guide “Footprints” Li’s investigation in more promising directions.
Yet despite her wisdom, the mystery will outlast the waning Cultural Revolution.
boldly invokes Hitchcock right there in its title, it is a bizarre tonal
mishmash. It is probably safe to say you will never find a sunnier, more upbeat
film about sex fiends and the Cultural Revolution. Seriously, do not try this
at home, but somehow Zhang pulls it off. Of course, it all starts with Li Bin’s
wildly charismatic and wonderfully acerbic performance as Cai. Acidic on the
outside, but sweet and sentimental deep down, like Marianas Trench deep, she
raises the cozy sleuth bar well above anything Margaret Rutherford or Angela
Lansbury ever did. If you were ever a victim of a crime, you would want her
giving the cops what-for on your behalf.
It is a tall order hanging with Li, but Ban
Zan grows into the job, playing “Footprints” Li with far less shtick than his character’s
pear shape and general level of incompetence would suggest. In fact, he gets as
serious as the plague during the masterfully dark third act. He is indeed a
major reason why this film will surprise you.
Where Xin Yukun’s A Coffin in the Mountain feels like a twisty
top tier Coen Brothers’ movie as exemplified by a Fargo, Northeast is more
closely akin to their bold but uneven mid-level films, like Hudsucker or O Brother. Still, that means there is more to recommend it than
ninety-five percent of films can lay claim to. Li Bin is unquestionably the
X-factor. Her turn as Cai is a thing of beauty and a force of nature. Recommended
for her vinegary power and Zhang’s considerable style, North by Northeast screens this coming Tuesday (9/1) and Friday
(9/4), as part of this year’s Montreal World Film Festival.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, MWFF '15