Back to the Wharf - Film Review
This is Xiaofeng Li's third film, which premiered at the 2020 Shanghai International Film Festival and it revolves around the themes of shame, guilt, loneliness and corrupted social hierarchies in a southern coastal Chinese town, where society is built on unstable values and money plays a key factor in determining your next move in life.
Although the film is centred around Song Hao (played by both Zhou Zhengjie as a teenager and Yu Zhang -Ciao Ciao as an adult), it's the actions of those around him, who break a young grade A student with a bright academic future into a distant and taciturn man. A not completely innocent Song Hao, gets caught in an unlikely event which goes from bad to worse, forcing him to make a drastic life changing decision.
And this is where the story begins. After a 15 year exile, Song Hao has returned 'home' for his mothers funeral, you feel an unease and resistance from Zhang's performance, whose first encounter with his past is Pan Xiaoshuang (Song Jia) a former fellow student and now a toll booth clerk, who recognises him and attempts to start a conversation, only to be meet with muted responses from a person who barely remembers her. This is where you start to notice the themes in a more developed and mature state. Pan's over excitement clearly masks an obsession she has had over Song and life as she notes during a drinking sessions, reveals those left in Xiyuan didn't amount too much. So there is a bitter-sweet to Song's life in the that respect, despite the tragic events in his teenage life, he did well to get out and not become part of the fabric of Xiyuan society.
Now in his early 30's, Song learns his dad (Wang Yanhui) has a new family. Again, money and social hierarchy enter the framework of the film, as the shame Song brought upon the family name had compromised his dads authoritative position within the city’s building committee, so to save face and his 'reputation' he needed to start again. The selfishness of his dads actions throughout the film, carry a heavy burden to Song's consciousness, pushing him deeper into a pit of hopelessness and despair, questioning, not so much his return, but if hanging around is actually a good idea. He seems stuck between a rock of salvation and a hard place of redemption. The longer he stays in Xiyuan, the closer demons edge closer to reality, forcing him again, to make life changing decisions. Which again, shows history repeating itself and Song Hao being the unfortunate stooge, in a political game of power.
Piao Songri (The Crossing), the films director of photography, helps to create the films bleak and washed out visuals, which makes for a nice juxtaposition to the characters who are equally so. This helps to give the drama a bit more realism from the moments the plot feels a little far stretched. The nearest thing you get to anything remotely 'colorful' is Li Tang (Li Hongqi) who plays a Batman's Joker type of character. He even wears a purple suit. Li is a fuerdai, a reckless, yet smart one and ironically, unlike Joker, not a very nice person, abusing his position as a property developer and holder of a great secret to keep certain people in his pocket. He's a very toxic character and only your pal, because you have something he wants. One of the best lines to emphasis this point is when, Song Jianfei, Song Hao's father, says, he feels like a monkey in a tree. Looking at his bosses assholes, whilst looking at the smiling faces from below. So, no one is exempt from China's social hierarchical structure.
The film is unsurprisingly not award winning, although it is a good story with the potential to go in many directions. Its faults lay at the beginning of the film, where it feels like a low budget high school drama, not too sure if that was deliberate, trying to convey youthful innocence, either way it didn't work, much like the films score througout, which simply doesn't gel with the tone and pace of the visuals. However, it does have many redeeming factors from the cast's performances and its intriguing plot line. Contrary to some reviews, I liked the dialogue was sparse and you had to read the visuals more. Overall, the film could have been thickened out and developed somewhat more perhaps. It's definitely worth watching and it will be interesting to see where Li Xiaofeng's future films go next. Those could be award winning.
Director: Li Xiaofeng
Cast: Yu Zhang, Jia Song, Yanhui Wang, Hongqi Li, Enxi Deng
Language: Mandarin w/ English subtitles
Genre: Family drama
Available to screen as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021