It is amazing how the CCP regime was able to prosecute its “One Child” policy with brutal effectiveness, but they claim to be powerless to stop dubious traditional practices, such a so-called “ghost marriages.” These questionable ceremonies happen post-mortem, supposedly to allow the unmarried bride and groom a better chance to find wedded bliss in their next lives. Troublingly, ghost marriages usually start with only one corpse, but always end up with two (not so coincidentally, the implications of the CCP’s radically different enforcement standards both have terrible implications for girls). Sha Tao, a developmentally disabled young woman from provincial Zhejiang, has been recruited for a ghost marriage, causing tremendous guilt for the indebted gambler responsible for her safe delivery in Wang Jun’s The Journey of Murder, which screens (virtually) as part of the (online) 2020 Brooklyn Film Festival.
Ma Saike gambled away the money for his terminally ill mother’s treatment and continued piling up debt. Much to his relief, his loan-shark offers a way to clear his I.O.U.’s and take care of his familial responsibilities. All he has to do is escort Sha Tao, pretending to be her physically disabled fiancé (the way his limp comes and goes really is distracting). However, she is such a handful, his task turns out to be much more difficult than he anticipated. Nevertheless, their long journey (and his periodic renegotiations) gives him time to figure out and regret her intended fate.
For the most part, Journey is an austere film in the tradition of socially-conscious independent Chinese cinema that suddenly veers into Tarantino territory in the last ten minutes. It is a wild shift of gears that almost no filmmaker would have the guts to try, so give Wang credit for gumption. He also manages to pull it off.
On the other hand, the portrayal of Sha Tao will trouble some people. Frankly, the tone of the film is not very different from that of Rain Man, but that probably will not be much reassurance to critics and commentators who specialize in outrage.
Be that as it may, the discipline of Yu Feifei’s performance is impressive. Neither she or Wang ever indulgence in cheap cuteness or sentimentality. They never share a contrived moment, yet she still expresses such innocence, we can understand his burgeoning guilt.
Liu Zhen is a schlubby mess as Ma, but he also manages to show how the character evolves and matures in subtle ways. Arguably, he is a more tragic figure than Sha Ta, because of the self-awareness painfully evident from his face and beaten-down body language.
Journey is an ambitious film that eloquently indicts the corruption and callousness of contemporary Mainland Chinese society. However, the flashback scenes are not clearly delineated, which frequently leads to confusion and herky-jerky flow. Still, there is an awful lot of honesty in the film. Recommended for fans of “Sixth Generation” filmmakers, Journey to Murder screens virtually (for free) during this year’s Brooklyn Film Festival through Sunday (6/7).