J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 28, 2015

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.

While Northeast 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.

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