老炮儿 (2015) | CONTAINS SPOILERS - At its core, Mr Six returns to the idea of ‘two Chinas’, and the clash between people living in separate spheres of a society dealing with unprecedented and rapid change, not merely in wealth but the core of its social morals and norms.
Detailed movie review below - contains spoilers.
At its core, Mr Six returns to the idea of ‘two Chinas’, and the clash between people living in separate spheres of a society dealing with unprecedented and rapid change, not merely in wealth but the core of its social morals and norms.
In the movie, director Guan Hu exposes a more nuanced, site-specific underbelly of China’s rapid development: the ‘gangster’ circles of Beijing. Feng Xiaogang plays ‘Liu Ye’, an ageing, moody, cigarette-smoking embodiment of the ‘jiang hu’ (江湖) culture of ‘Old Beijing’, who exists in the narrow, run-down hutongs behind Beijing’s most popular districts. He spends his days growling lessons about manners and respect, in an authentic Beijing accent – dropped consonants and all – at impudent young tourists and petty thieves alike. He's the rare citizen who involves himself with other people's affairs simply because he sees they're not acting 'right', by traditional moral codes.
In short, Liu Ye functions as the embodiment of the jiang hu code of ‘brotherhood’, where a dogged ‘honour’ is paramount, though granted, it is the sort of honour code that says, since you took all the cash, you should return a stolen wallet's ID cards to its owner. This life, however, is barely hanging on; despite being surrounded by beautiful, empty siheyuan (四合院) houses owned by rich, absent owners (save for a caged ostrich in the yard – we’ll come back to that), most of Liu Ye’s circle are just scraping by and the glory days are long gone. Most of the children have left.
You get the sense that Liu Ye has built his life as best as he can, even if it’s not quite ‘happy’; he skates on Houhai lake, with a small radio blaring old Chinese opera songs out loud (a familiar habit for Chinese people of a certain generation), has a handful of loyal friends and even an on-and-off girlfriend, Hua Xia Zi (Chatterbox).
However, he’s confronted with a change of pace when he learns that his estranged son, Xiao Bo, has been kidnapped by a rich, car-modding gang for supposedly sleeping with the leader’s girlfriend and then keying the leader’s car after they beat him up.
It’s a powerful first act. Liu Ye takes to this rescue mission with no-nonsense, gangster practicality. He finds the gang and their leader, Xiao Fei (Kris Wu), who embodies all the arrogant apathy of the infamous fuerdai 富二代 generation of children, with a thirst for violence, no moral compass and too much money for their own good. With the same air of finality and authority that had previously worked on a local squabble between a local policemen and a ‘brother’, Liu Ye pulls out a cheap plastic bag, with 2000RMB in cash, to pay for the damage on behalf of his son.
The best, declarative statement of the state of ‘two Chinas’ happens in the next scene as, with a single camera pan, Xiao Fei pulls the silk cloth to unveil the gleaming curves and waxed surface of his exclusive, Europe-imported Ferrari, and the deep jagged scar along the car door (cue collective hiss from the cinema audience). As the cloth drops to the floor, you feel all the decades of China’s economic boom rush up to meet Liu Ye, who squares his jaw against the gales of laughter from the surrounding lackeys to demand an estimate for the repair cost from Xiao Fei.
‘100,000,’ is the answer.
‘Cheng,’ says Mr Six. Done.
There is no question where he will get the money from – his ‘brothers’, of course – but as Liu Ye pulls out his address book and wanders through Beijing to collect the offerings, it’s immediately obvious that many who once ‘ruled’ the streets are now struggling to stay off it. And while you have the reaffirmation of brotherly bond with many of Liu Ye's friends, who give up their money despite hard times, I applaud Guan Hu's efforts at showing how this invincible bond is definitely fraying between some, particularly those who have managed to do better in the new economy. The movie does take extra care to exalt Liu Ye’s moral code, in a way that is natural when – with little to spare – he slips an few hundred RMB on the desk of a friend caring for an ailing wife, but a little heavy-handed when added onto another scene where he stops to donate money to a random beggar on the streets.
Director Guan Hu also uses this sequence to comment on the increasing alienation between Chinese people with wry humour; Xiao Bo’s friend saw him getting kidnapped and did nothing because they ‘weren’t that close’, ‘Go on, yell for help. See if anyone cares,’ Liu Ye tells one of Xiao Fei’s underlings as he hijacks the car, a potential suicide jumper is treated with sneering disdain by the gathered crowd, and one of Liu Ye’s few rich friends comments blithely about how his company is in charge of putting all the chemicals in wine, and also goes on to offend Liu Ye by offering him 100,000RMB in cash but makes excuses to leave so he can socialise with business partners.
Where the movie begins faltering is the second act, when – long story short - Liu Ye recovers his son but the car situation deteriorates into an agreement to have a proper ‘mob fight’ between Liu Ye and Xiao Fei’s underlings. Any other movie would have Liu Ye rounding up his old-time gang and rediscovering his youth through pummelling the youngsters, so I’m glad Guan Hu goes a different direction. Unfortunately, he chose about three different directions and thus diluted the narrative weight of all three.
The faltering is that there is another, equally powerful story jockeying for attention, embodied by Liu Ye’s son, Xiao Bo, who was left to fend for himself and his sick mother after Liu Ye was sent to prison. Guan Hu inches towards slight deconstruction of the romanticised ‘honourable gangster’ trope in an emotional scene in a diner between Liu Ye and Xiaobo, but ultimately eschews a more nuanced exploration in favour of hurrying the main action along. Xiaobo, to me, is a fascinating embodiment of the broken family Liu Ye left behind during his incarceration - a direct product of his gangster lifestyle - as well as the differences in generational dreams (‘What do you do?’ Xiao Bo demands, caustically, in response to his father asking him about what he plans to do with his future)
There was space for the rough-and-tumble love Xiao Bo experiences to be a foil to Xiao Fei as well, but, again, it's left unexplored. Liu Ye and his son reconcile a little too quickly, and Xiao Bo is taken out of commission for most of the third act. Why was he mixed up in the gang in the first place – did he have social climbing aspirations? What really happened with the girl? Why does he decide to give up studying in the city and take up his father’s mantle again? We will never know…
By the third act, the focus is firmly on Xiao Fei, Liu Ye and a piece of incriminating evidence of corrupt dealings by government officials that drags the stakes far beyond a street brawl between two generations of gangsters. Here, the movie really relied heavily on Xiao Fei’s character so it was a pity they cast Kris, as he could not quite carry the role for me. As much as his wide-eyed and surprising earnest portrayal could be a sign that his whole ‘gangster’ face was merely a front, I could not quite buy that he had the charisma and cynicism required to command the respect of a gang.
It’s quickly apparent that Xiao Fei’s shady uncle and his gangsters who have adapted to this ‘new’ China are the true villains, on a scale of riches and brutality that is unfathomable to 'commoners' like Liu Ye. It would have been nice to see a little more focus on the sort of people (who are the same age as Liu Ye) who could build themselves a corrupt, billionaire empire, especially since they are sort of indistinguishable to Mr Six's gang. It would have also been nice to linger a little longer on the sort of family life that could lead Xiao Fei to say to Mr Six, ‘I used to think people like you only existed in movies’.
For all its cursing and posturing, Mr Six really does not linger on violence and does pretty good comedy in odd moments, often courtesy of the sometimes-incomprehensible gangster slang. It's got a decent balance of action and touching emotional beats, especially between Liu Ye and his fiery younger 'brother', MenSan Er, (Zhang Hanyu, channelling pitbull-level devotion, for whom the word ‘cute’ seems both completely inappropriate and very appropriate). The women definitely get shafted with this film - whether valid or not, this is a 'man's world' and the film does not attempt to look to the other gender, even if I personally found Hua Xia Zi to be a fiery but grounding and humane presence in the film.
The beautiful cinematography takes advantage of the mist, ice and smoke of Beijing’s winter, juxtaposed with the eye-searing, artificial brights of fast cars, night lights and graffiti. It was a nice bonus to recognise authentic Beijing landmarks like Houhaiand Sanlitun, if a little jarring because Liu Ye so thoroughly does not belong in this world of tall skyscrapers and glossy buildings.
Someone really needs to lay off the trying-to-top-JJ-Abrams’-lens-flare-record though.
The film ends largely with a familiar narrative, settling on cautiously optimistic hope that the youth of today can still be saved by traditional values, and that the ordinary 'commoner' can do the right thing and be rewarded. Liu Ye’s brothers all gather, when push comes to shove, his son recovers and despite refusing to call on the police the entire film, Liu Ye ends up trusting in the authorities (who swiftly and fairly deal with the corruption, of course).
Despite the ham-fisted, CGI ostrich metaphor and the complete massacre of tension, courtesy of the ridiculous, five minute, slow motion, sword-outflung run, Liu Ye’s return to his former ‘street fighter’ glory, freed from the burden of his own, somewhat mediocre life, continues to linger, despite the movie’s ending.
Ultimately Guan Hu created a suitably compelling character for the movie to hinge on – a rare creature, almost innocent in his stubborn and unshakeable belief in the simplicity of honour and what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. For him, the world is still straightforward and black and white – he doesn’t know any other way. And even if he must run across an ice river, in a doomed charge towards his own death, it’s impossible not to feel a little admiration and a little sadness for this dying breed of human, no matter his faults.
7.5 / 10