If the trailer for Are You Lonesome Tonight? made you expect some gritty crime drama in the line of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser or The Yellow Sea, or say, Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake (a closer comparison probably), I should tell you that Wen Shipei’s Out of Competition Cannes title is definitely not that.
Actually, the IMDb title Tropical Memories may be more fitting and explanatory, since this is a film built exclusively around a structure of how the memory works. A man who has spent most of his adult life in prison and retold his story to many different cellmates over and over again for years, takes us on a journey into his memories. How one night, in a brief moment of absent-mindedness, he hit a pedestrian with his van and fled the scene. How the smallest details, a dead fish or a runaway ox, may have led his life to that moment, that accident. And how he started following the guy’s widow afterwards with a feeling of guilt. It’s impossible to know how much of it is actually real or constructed after years in prison, through telling and retelling. And this structure is the pillar of the film. It adds almost a mythical layer to this story of guilt and redemption.
Which is sadly the only thing to keep the audience interested. Eddie Peng’s obscure leading performance is not to blame here; he’s a subtle yet enigmatic actor to follow. The plot is not though. Starting from the relationship between the young man and the widow, the direction the film is going is hard to define. Maybe tougher choices should’ve been made through the storyline. What’s between Xueming and Mrs. Liang exactly? Kind of a mother-and-son dynamic, or a secretly carnal one? It doesn’t really go in either direction. And during the last act we forget about her altogether. The film shifts to a completely different tone, one you’d actually expect from the trailer this time, and becomes a violent action thriller all of a sudden. A pursuit for some money, all to make amends to the widow. But do we really care for it anymore?
Wen seems to be more focused on visualizing the journey in one’s mind, sometimes reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film has really strong cinematography, some daring lighting and camera work, making this a distinctive technical achievement. But the film hopelessly demands us to root for its two lead characters, while the story is never as personal, inventive and daring as the DoP. Or four DoPs, actually. Andreas Thalhammer, Cedric Cheung-Lau, Xiaosu Han, and Zhang Heng’s collaborative work with Wen Shipei is truly a saving grace here, and that’s still a promising sum for a first-time feature director.