Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mr. Six: Feng Xiaogang Delivers One of the Year’s Best Performances

Zhang Xuejun, a.k.a. Mr. Six is the sort of old timer who is always around to deliver a lecture on manners. However, this semi-retired gangster can back up his words. Mr. Six always lived by a code, but to the younger, nihilistic generation of thugs consider that a weakness. Still, he has character and that counts for a lot in Guan Hu’s Mr. Six (trailer here), which opens this Christmas Eve in New York.

Mr. Six is a stabilizing, protective figure in his working class Beijing hutong neighborhood, but he gets along better with his not-so-talkative songbird than his son Bobby. Mr. Six has not heard from the twentynothing since he moved out several months ago. He assumed the kid was just sulking as usual, until he finally starts asking round. It turns out Bobby was kidnapped by the punky nouveau riche leader of a street racing gang as part of a dispute over a girl and a scratched up Ferrari. Mr. Six understands Kris can act with impunity as the son of a corrupt government official, so he arranges to pay Bobby’s debt/ransom. Of course, complications continue to snowball.

Feng Xiaogang is one of China’s most commercially successful directors, who has occasionally turned up in front of the camera for relatively small roles. However, those brief appearances will not prepare fans for the heavy soulfulness of his performance as the title character. He hardly needs to speak a word (even though he delivers some stone cold dialogue with earthy flair)—the aching dignity and regret just radiates out of him. Thanks to his flinty presence and Guan’s reserved approach, Mr. Six might just be the definitive aging gangster.

He is also surrounded by a top-notch ensemble, starting with the kind of awesome Zhang Hanyu as Mr. Six’s slightly younger, hardnosed crony, Scrapper. He is probably worthy of his own film. Kris Wu also defies all expectations, bringing elements of humanity in his initially reckless and entitled namesake. Ironically, Li Yifeng hits a more consistent, less nuanced note as the resentful Bobby. Still, his shortcomings are redeemed by Xu Qing’s heartfelt but intelligent performance as Mr. Six’s patient lover, Chatterbox.

Mr. Six is a tremendous film that levels a potent critique of China’s contemporary social attitudes and government corruption. Thematically, it might sound a lot like Takeshi Kitano’s Ryuzo and His Seven Henchmen, but it is much closer in tone to the Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown. Feng displays none of the bombast he unleashed in films like Assembly and Aftershock, giving a gritty, utterly real, street level performance. Even though it is not exactly inspirational, per se, Mr. Six is a great film to end the cinematic year with. Very highly recommended, Mr. Six opens this Thursday (12/24) in New York, at the AMC Empire.