J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cock and Bull: Noir in Western China

The roads are dusty, the sun is hot, and murder is all part of business. It is contemporary Western China, not the Old West, but effective law enforcement is still pretty scarce in these parts. If a stubborn mechanic’s name is ever going to be cleared, he will have to do it himself in Cao Baoping’s nifty noir thriller Cock and Bull (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Song Laoer was known to have a short temper and some bad history with “Cat,” so he is pretty much the only one the cops bother to interview. However, having zero evidence they duly release him from holding. He might be at liberty, but he is definitely under a cloud. Fearing his besmirched reputation will cause trouble for his pre-teen son, Song commences his own investigation. In a village near the remote crime scene, the mechanic finds Cat’s missing motorbike in Wang Youquan’s possession, but the fleet of foot ne’er do well escapes.

That is basically good enough for the cops, but not for Song. He will keep pursuing the punk, starting at the flat of his long-suffering girlfriend, Yang Shuhua. However, unbeknownst to them both, there is third player out there, but we will not get a good look at Dong Xiaofeng until the film starts rewinding and pulling back to give us additional Tarantino-esque perspectives.

Cock and Bull is one of several ripping good Chinese noirs set in the provinces (inevitably inspiring Coen Brothers comparisons) and the first to get the American distribution it deserves (that means A Coffin in the Mountain and North by Northeast are probably still available). It also has the benefit of a big star in Liu Ye as the beleaguered but admirably proactive Song. He hits a wonderfully understated note of comic frustration, channeling Harrison Ford, by way of a hound dog. Duan Bowen is considerably fierier as Wang, but he is still firmly grounded within Cao’s hardscrabble environment. He also forges some compelling hot-and-cold romantic chemistry with Wang Ziwen’s Yang.

It would probably be a spoilery sin to reveal to much about Dong, but it is hopefully safe to say Zhang Yi demonstrates he is equally adept at physical comedy and outright carnage in the role. Tan Zhuo is also sweetly poignant as his unappreciated hostess girlfriend Ping Jie.

Playing with point-of-view is sort of Cao’s thing, but as in Equation of Love and Death, he manages to withhold information in ways viewers will not resent. He maintains a brisk pace and a bracing attitude towards just about all authority figures. It pretty much has it all except maybe romance and sentimentality.

If you enjoyed Hell or High Water (and you really should have, because it is wryly entertaining) than you should also thoroughly enjoy the sly, slightly absurdist Cock and Bull. The climate is similar, but the twists are twistier. Liu Ye matches up well with Jeff Bridges as a crusty old hardnose and Zhang Yi meets or exceeds Ben Foster’s violently erratic behavior, but Duan Bowen has far more character than the serviceably bland Chris Pine. Very enthusiastically recommended, Cock and Bull opens this Friday (9/16) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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