Monday, July 10, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Duckweed

Suppose Marty McFly’s dad George was actually pretty cool and totally cut. He just made a few bad investment decisions, like stock-piling beeper numbers and getting sent to prison a few days before his pregnant wife delivered. That is sort of what jerky grand prix racer Xu Tailang discovers when he is suddenly sent back in time, from the year 2022 to just prior to his birth. He might just work out all his issues with his small-town gang-leader father, if they aren’t killed by a rival gang first in Han Han’s smash hit Duckweed (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Xu Tailang always resented his father Xu Zhengtai—a fact he makes abundantly clear after winning a big race. Unfortunately, Xu takes an ill-advised victory lap that proves he is not faster than a speeding locomotive. First his life flashes before his eyes, or at least the highlights, so we can understand his fraught father-son relationship. Then he wakes up in his father’s hometown, twenty-four years earlier.

Despite his weirdness, Xu Zhengtai quickly welcomes Tailang into the gang. It is a small, but selective bunch, limited to his father, future real life Chinese internet tycoon, Ma Huateng, and the loyal, but dumber than a bag full of hammers Luo Yi (played by Han Han’s racing partner, Zack Guo). In a pressing matter of concern for Tailang, his father seems utterly devoted to his childhood sweetheart, but she does not have the right name to be the mother he never had a chance to know. Meanwhile, a Hong Kong-backed syndicate is encroaching on Zhengtai’s action.

Han Han unleashes plenty of manipulative techniques, but the affable cast maintains viewer good will all the way through. Eddie Peng doubles down on roguish charm as the young Zhengtai and manages to be rather poignant as the graying, remorseful father Zhengtai. TV mega-star Zhao Liying proves she also has plenty of big-screen screen-presence as Zhengtai’s endearing fiancée. Deng Chao is game as the straight man son, yet it is Guo who steals scene after scene as the dim-witted but painfully earnest Luo.

Viewers can easily see why Duckweed has been such a popular box office draw in multiple territories. It is nostalgic and sentimental, in the right ways. Despite it shout-outs to “Pony Ma,” there is a wistful affection for a time when social media was not incessantly clamoring at us. In a line rich with resonance, a flustered Xu Tailang says sotto voce: “I love the 90s. When you tell people you need a minute, nobody asks why.” Indeed, appreciating what we lost and what we’ve constantly overlooked is what Duckweed is all about. Recommended for fans of low-tech time travel fantasies, Duckweed screens Saturday (7/15), at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.