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Film Review: ‘Duckweed’

Variety logo Variety 2/8/2017 Maggie Lee
© Provided by Variety

The biggest surprise about “Duckweed,” the sophomore feature written and directed by China’s superstar writer-blogger Han Han, is its absolute predictability. A dramedy in which a car racer time-travels to the late ’90s and becomes his estranged father’s partner-in-crime, the film features plot turns and emotional arcs that are all easy to anticipate. What the movie does reflect is how China is moving ahead so fast that millennials are already glancing at the not-so-distant past and its values with jaded amusement and nostalgia. More relaxed and carefree than any of the Lunar New Year blockbusters jostling for the holiday crowd, the film is sprinkled with witty grace notes and is crowd-pleasing without being too ingratiating or idiotic.

Those who admire Han’s pithy prose or the sublime poetry of his debut feature “The Continent” may feel he’s punching below his weight here, but the absence of intellectual posing and heavy messages are what make “Duckweed” go down smoothly among Han’s target post-’90s fan base. The film currently places fourth in domestic box office, grossing about $71.6 million, but fierce competition may prevent it from reaching the $92.7 million target that “The Continent” achieved.

Han, 35, China’s most popular blogger, literary rebel and professional rally driver, has been hailed the definitive voice of his generation. Like his debut feature, autobiographical elements are infused into themes of travel, nonconformism and male-bonding in his latest screenplay. The protagonist, Lang (Deng Chao), is a car racer living in 2022 Shanghai. Upon winning a national rally, he publicly and sarcastically “thanks” his dad, Zheng (Eddie Peng), for his rough upbringing and lack of encouragement. He offers Zheng a ride to show off his driving, but crashes the vehicle.

While hovering between life and death, Lang time-slips to 1998, and lands in an alley where he witnesses a young Zheng’s righteous but foolhardy actions. Together with dimwit Liu Yi (race-car driver Zack Gao) and computer nerd Little Ma (Dong Zijian, “Mountains May Depart”) they pose like younger selves of the aged vigilantes in Guan Hu’s “Mr Six,” upholding honor codes borrowed from ’80s Hong Kong gangster films.

Unlike the battle-scarred heroes they admire onscreen, these young punks strut their stuff inside an idealized, juvenile vacuum. When they take control of a karaoke bar, it’s to ensure the joint remains “pure” so that the “decent girls” won’t be molested by customers. When Zheng extorts protection money from a restaurant, he does maintenance work for the owner in return. Nor does their arch enemy, car smuggler  Luo Li (Zhang Benyu, from hit web series “Surprise”), get up to any real mischief. And the local police chief Jin (King Shih-chieh) keeps benevolent watch over things. Likewise, when Lang discovers that Zheng is dating childhood sweetheart Hua (Zhao Liying, fetching) and not his mom Suzheng, his game plan to break them up stops short of a risque and subversive outcome.

Perhaps this vanilla depiction helped the script get through government censors, but it also defangs the protagonists without providing an authentically engaging background. So when Luo’s boss Zhiqiang (Li Ronghao), a brutal Hong Kong businessman/don turns up and things get abruptly nasty, it’s as tonally jarring as if he walked into the wrong genre. It’s also a far cry from Han’s gentle yet spot-on observations of contempo China’s social ills and his generation’s restive psyche in “The Continent.”

Han cited a slew of Hollywood classics as his influences, like “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future” and “Somewhere in Time.” Actually, his biggest debt here is to Hong Kong dramedy “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father” (1993), as both films depict go-getters learning to appreciate their fathers’ simpatico traits by accidentally falling into their era. Unconcerned with the science of time travel, the drama centers on bridging gaps between two generations in a tragicomic buddy movie.

Han’s improved skill as a director can be seen in his execution of of two driving sequences lensed by DP Cheng Ma, and a bravura slow motion shot of Lang’s car colliding sideways with a speeding train. His storytelling also avoids wordy exposition, yet emotively conveys Lang’s resentment toward his good-for-nothing ex-con dad through a flashback montage of the comatose Lang’s life, played like a silent movie with snarky captions.

China in the late ’90s is depicted as yet having no hard-and-fast rule for success. Audiences with hindsight will no doubt crack up at Zheng’s plan to get rich by stockpiling pagers, or Ma (a stand-in for Tencent and We Chat founder Pony Ma) being written off as a loser. There’s understated poignancy in a scene when Zheng proclaims, “The world won’t change!” and Lang sighs: “The world will change.” The real irony is, the world has never stopped changing and those who don’t wake up to that fact get left behind.

The diverse cast develops a rapport through breezy pacing and glib dialogue, despite the facile roles. Peng offhandedly turns on his boyish appeal but lacks emotional heft. Deng, again proving himself one of China’s most compelling actors, shifts naturally between blasé horseplay and serious intensity.

The film is shot in the southeast provinces of Zhejiang and Suzhou, where the 1,000-year-old city of Changshou offers tranquil scenery of canals, arched bridges, and ancient houses. Most tech credits are fine, except for composer Peng Fei’s mawkish use of Japanese folksongs like Masashi Sada’s “Kanpaku Sengen,” with Chinese lyrics by Han.

The Chinese title means “Riding the Wind and Breaking the Waves.”

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