Because Fan Bingbing, that's why ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Because Fan Bingbing, that's why

Wheat (2009)My rating:

Yes, it's a 2009 movie, and it's only now come to Malaysia courtesy of GSC's International Screens program. (Which I recall was launched with some fanfare several years ago, with the goal of bringing quality foreign and non-mainstream fare to local audiences - and now they only release, what, a handful of films a year?) And the only reason why I'm watching and reviewing it instead of, say, Resident Evil: Afterlife, is this LoveHKFilm review - or more specifically, its description of leading lady Fan Bingbing as "insanely beautiful". I saw her in Bodyguards and Assassins last year, and damn, she is. Also, it was a positive review, so it definitely seemed worth watching.

Well, I didn't like it as much as LoveHKFilm did. But Fan Bingbing, man.

It is the Warring States period in China's history. Lu Yi is a remote town in the kingdom of Zhao comprised entirely of women, the men having gone to war with the state of Qin - including Lord Cu Jong (Wang Xueqi), the husband of Lady Li (Fan Bingbing), who is now the mistress of the city. One day two Qin army deserters, Xia (Huang Jue) and Zhe (Du Jiayi), find themselves in Lu Yi, and pose as soldiers of Zhao with a story of Zhao's glorious victory in battle, thus earning the adulation of the women. But the truth is that the Zhao army was completely annihilated, the kingdom is wide open for invasion, and the soldiers' deception will not hold for long.

I've been wondering if I'm not too fixated on genres and formulas - that in trying to pigeonhole every movie I watch into neat little boxes, I'm blinding myself to what they're really trying to accomplish. The premise of Wheat is similar to any number of films based on one or more persons deceiving a larger group of people and getting in over their heads (let's see, While You Were Sleeping, ¡Three Amigos, A Bug's Life - and yes, they tend to be comedies), and I kept expecting it to either follow those conventions or knowingly subvert them. Most of my dissatisfaction with the film arises from the fact that it mostly does neither.

It did not have an auspicious start, what with an opening scene that delivered exposition via extremely on-the-nose dialogue. ("Oh, it's so hard living in a women-only town in the state of Zhao where all the men have gone to war!" "Yes, but we loyally support the war against Qin, so let us patiently wait for our men to come home!") But it soon becomes clear that the film employs a kind of stylized theatricality, in the performances, the staging, the gorgeous wide-angle cinematography, even the exacting Zhang Yimou-ish art direction - f'rinstance, the uniform white workclothes that all the women of Lu Yi wear. Wheat clearly isn't going for gritty reality, so I can forgive a little on-the-nose dialogue.

What isn't as easy to forgive is its often directionless plot. The formula dictates that the soldiers would soon grow fond of Lu Yi (and why wouldn't they? Feted as heroes in a town full of lonely and horny women?) and eventually throw their lot in with them when their deception is revealed. But Xia and Zhe alternate between living it up, plotting to capture the town for Qin, and attempting to escape, with rarely any clear motivation for this constant gear-switching. When a group of bandits raid the town and attempt to turn it into their own personal fiefdom, this is the expected turning point where the soldiers fight them off and save their new home - but just minutes earlier, they were scheming to slaughter the women themselves.

Oh I'm sorry, were you expecting these guys to be heroic? They aren't, not very, at all. In fact, Zhe - the supposed bumbling comic relief of the two - is a borderline retard and played by an incredibly annoying Du Jiayi. He's just cowardly, greedy, selfish and stupid from start to finish. Xia is the typical soldier who's sick of war and just wants to go home to his farm (sentiments echoed in Jackie Chan's character from Little Big Soldier, and this kind of anti-war message is definitely a thing with Chinese cinema), and Huang Jue plays him with plenty of gravitas and charisma; it's a pity that, once again, his motivations just aren't very clear. Also, Wang Zhiwen is terrific in his one scene as the bandit leader - a grinning, viperously charming psychopath who treats all life, including his own, as disposable.

But Fan Bingbing, man. She's not only fabulous to look at, her performance is incredible and makes for reason alone to watch the film. It's not an easy role either; it soon becomes clear that Lady Li, as well as all the women of Lu Yi, have become increasingly unhinged from their loneliness and isolation. And since their inevitable fate is to be conquered by Qin, there can be no happy ending for these characters. Perhaps that's what He Ping is going for - a dark tragedy, in which whatever comedy there is is meant to be black. Maybe my preoccupation with genres and formulas blinded me to that, such that I couldn't tell if it accomplished what it aimed for. But I can be sure of this: as a vehicle for Ms. Fan, it's terrific.

Expectations: it's Razak Mohaideen!