Saturday, July 07, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Looking for Lucky

Capitalism is an inherently fair and moral system. Good and services are exchanged at prices set in a free and open market. That is not how it works in China, where crony socialism has given rise to a favor economy. With no transparency, favor exchanges are constantly renegotiated mid-transaction by the more connected party—typically government officials or CP members. Poor grad student Zhang Guangsheng (poor is indeed the word) is at the mercy of his faculty advisor, particularly with respects to his future employment hopes. That is why his life is thrown into crisis when his father loses his professor’s dog in Jiang Jiachen’s Looking for Lucky (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

All of the errands Zhang has performed for Prof. Niu are on the brink of paying off, when the senior faculty member starts making vague promises regarding a full-time teaching position. Of course, the brown-nosing Zhang agrees to look after Niu’s white bulldog Lucky while he is out of town. However, he also has a thesis defense to prepare so he asks his father to walk Lucky. In retrospect, this was a catastrophic error.

For whatever reason, the elder Zhang is a magnet for quarrels, so true to form, he loses Lucky in the part after a run-in with an opportunistic granny. After bailing his father out of jail, Zhang starts pounding the pavement, but the chances of finding Lucky start out slim and become grimmer with each passing day.

Dog lovers can sort of relax, because the missing Lucky is found safe and sound about halfway through picture, but in a way that is no help to Zhang. Alas, not every dog in the film will be so lucky. Needless to say, Zhang’s supposedly secure future is now very much in doubt. Reluctantly, he falls back on plan B—offering Niu cash for the position, which Zhang’s father and his cronies believed was necessary all along. Thusly begins a mad scramble to raise money, complete his degree, and keep the old man out of jail.

Lucky is billed as a comedy, but it is hard to laugh at Zhang’s plight. Basically, it is like the dog-sitting analog of De Sica’s Bicycle Thief. Everything is stacked against Zhang, from petty scammers to snobby passive-aggressive fellow grad students. Actually, old Lucky is one of the few characters who we can’t really blame, given the circumstances of his disappearance.

It is also somewhat notable to see a father-and-son relationship in socially-conscious independent cinema (usually it is a sainted mother sacrificing for her family). Their home life is often contentious, but it is still mostly workable. As Zhang and his father, Ding Xinhe and Yu Hai are absolutely terrific. They bicker like they have years of difficult shared history together and practically already know what the other will say.

This is what happens when economic power is centralized—those who hold it, abuse it. The film’s setting in northeastern Shenyang (Jiang’s hometown) raises the stakes even further. Unlike big cities such as Shanghai, there are even less opportunities and fewer grey sectors. The film definitely has a docu-hybrid feel, because it is clearly based in truth and produced on the streets. Highly recommended as both a character study and as a humanistic critique of China’s political economy, Looking for Lucky screens tomorrow afternoon (7/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.