Friday, June 15, 2018

DWF ’18: Brother Pao Going into Town

Wu Dayou is sort of like a Chinese Tora-san, but he doesn’t realize a country rube like him is not supposed to win the girl. In fact, his guileless is his secret weapon. He has come to Beijing in search of the hometown sweetheart who went M.I.A., but he might just find love with someone else in Yang Yinan’s Brother Pao Going into Town (trailer here), which screens today as part of the Spotlight: China! sidebar at this year’s Dances With Films.

Wu kept up a steady correspondence with Dadan for months until she suddenly went quiet. We can all guess she found herself a sugar daddy (euphemistically called a “god-father” in the subtitles), but that thought never crosses his naïve mind. He will be staying with his brother Wu Qiantu, who is trying to make it as a scrappy art dealer, but he has just been taken by a scummy competitor.

About the same time, Wu Dayou loses his phone to Liya, a struggling art student desperate enough to pull such a petty scam. However, Dayou will soon get his phone back. In fact, he will cross paths with Liya repeatedly over the next few days. The same will be true for all the other characters who play a role in this story, because for a lug like Wu, Beijing is just one big small town.

Brother Pao is not high art, but it is the sort of mass market fare that is not often programmed at film festivals. There is a lot of shticky, slapsticky humor, but it is likably modest and genial. Eventually, Wu and his brother will forge a new family with the colorful characters who get pulled into his orbit. Frankly, it would be rather clever of the Hallmark Channel to acquire this film, because it could expand their audience without alienating their current viewers (notwithstanding a handful of sex jokes).

Guo Jinjie is earnest as the day is long as Wu Dayou. It is a rubber-faced performance to be sure, but you can see a bit of sad-clown in there too. Wen Qi serves nicely as a foil to him as the tough-on-the-outside, sweet-on-the-inside Liya. Ironically, Liu Lijun delivers the film’s real moment of bittersweet poignancy as Dadan, while Zhang Qian is generally amusing as tart and grizzled Old Xu.

Brother Pao might be unrealistically upbeat—its like a Chinese Rent, but with a middle-aged square and an all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion—but its depiction of the Chinese art market is what really feels off. Some of the world’s most successful avant-garde artists hail from China, but the market leaders in this film all seem to be practicing the tradition of handscroll painting that dates back millennia. Still, the sixty-nine-minute Brother Pao Going into Town is a weirdly reassuring viewing experience. For those who want to check it out, it has its North American premiere this afternoon (6/15), during the 2018 Dances With Films.