Saturday, July 01, 2017

NYAFF ’17: The Village of No Return

If you have seen Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, you understand our innermost pain is what makes us human. The sinister con man masquerading as a Taoist priest would respond by offering to remove the pain of watching Star Trek V with his “Worry Ridder.” However, once you start letting someone erase the past, it inevitably leads to tyranny in Chen Yu-hsun’s goofy but still on-point satire The Village of No Return (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

During the early days of the Chinese Republic, the well-heeled Rock Peeler is hatching an evil scheme to invade and dominate sleepy Desire Village with the help of the outlaw Cloud Clan. Big Pie was supposed to be his plant in the village, but his broken-hearted wife Autumn kind of-sort of poisoned him. It’s complicated, but she has good reason to feel guilty about it. Fortune Tien can fix that.

After his grand entrance, the village’s only slightly corrupt chief has the flamboyant flim flam man imprisoned, which might be his only wise decision in the entire film. Nevertheless, the smooth-talking Tien is administering memory wipes soon enough. Of course, once he starts poking around in villagers’ heads, he gives them full scrubs, leaving them susceptible to his nefarious suggestions that he is their beloved chief and Autumn is his adoring wife.

Ironically, it is Autumn who holds out the longest, because she is reluctant to lose her memories of her long lost true love, the chief’s son, Dean Wang. He went into the city to take the Civil Service exam, but disappeared during the Republican revolution. As fate would have it, he fell in with the Cloud Clan and is now lurking outside Desire Village, waiting for the messenger pigeons Big Pie will not be releasing.

Yes, you can read into Village a subtext regarding those who forget the past and dictators who censor unpleasant history into society’s memory hole. There are also a lot of people hitting each other and falling down. There is indeed plenty of slapstick business, but unlike some shticky Mainland comedies, this Taiwanese import has other things on its mind. For one thing, the steampunky design of the Memory Ridder is undeniably cool and its implications are pretty serious. Chen & Chang Yaosheng’s screenplay goes from bumpkin bumbling to dystopian mind control in record time.

The film is also anchored by the wonderfully subtle and sly Shu Qi, who effortlessly ranges from grandly tragic to radiantly sweet and archly suspicious and then back again. Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan manages to be both nebbish and darkly brooding as village’s highly trained martial artist, who has never managed to use his skills due to an acute childhood trauma. Wang Qianyuan chews the scenery like mad as Fortune Tien, but he still can’t lay a glove on Eric Tsang, this year’s NYAFF Star Hong Kong Life Achievement Award recipient, who definitely does his thing as Rock Peeler.

There is plenty of broad humor in Village, but there is also some distinctive design work, a cautionary warning against sacrificing freedoms for the sake of comfort, and Shu Qi. What more do you need? Recommended for those who dig a wacky allegory, The Village of No Return screens tomorrow (7/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.