Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Back to the Wharf

It is nice to know a film remotely connected to the reality of life in China can still slip by the China Film Administration (at least it did in late 2020). This noir melodrama is based on true crimes and very real government corruption. The fictional part would be the cops actually enforcing the laws. Regardless, karma remains what it always is in Li Xiaofeng’s Back to the Wharf, which releases today on VOD.

Nobody is a more dedicated plugger in his high school than Song Hao. Yet, his principal gives away the school’s coveted guaranteed university admissions slot to his politically connected friend, Li Tang, perversely justifying it for the good of the “collective.” Call it: “community solidarity with Chinese characteristics.” Enraged, Song rushes out to confront Li’s father, but since the working-class teen was never invited to the Li’s tony home, he barges into the wrong house, killing the enraged occupant in self-defense, during the ensuing scuffle.

Or so he thought. Actually, his city bureaucrat father, Song Jianhui, finished the man off, but he allowed his son to assume the guilt was solely his. For fifteen years, the once-promising Song works as laborer in a distant quarry, fearing his crime will eventually catch up with him. However, when his mother dies, he ventures back home for the funeral. There, he reconnects with his now prosperous father and his old “friend” Li, who witnessed the entire incident fifteen years ago, unbeknownst to the Songs.

Song would prefer to leave again as soon as possible, but his former classmate Pan Xiaoshuang is determined not to let an eligible single man of her “advanced” age leave town with a fight. While she pursues Song, he starts stalking Wan Xiaoning, the orphaned daughter of the man he thinks he killed, but out of guilt, rather than sexual obsession.

Obviously, this is a highly combustible situation. In many ways,
Wharf is definitely a noir thriller, but Li Xiaofeng also incorporates a good deal social criticism. Song Hao is a character Clifford Odets could definitely relate to—but he would presumably be quite surprised to find him in a socialist country like the PRC.

Indeed, even (or rather, especially) in Xi’s China, class determines destiny for a poor loser like Song Hao. Zhang Yu slow-burns hard as the luckless protagonist, but at times he is almost too sullen for viewers to engage with. However, Song Jia and Deng Enxi are terrific, giving viscerally messy, complex, and challenging performances as Pan and Wan, respectively. The former is all fire and the latter is all ice, but they are both compulsively watchable. Likewise, Guo Yuhang personifies bad news as the dangerous and unstable Li Tang.

was produced several years ago, so do not expect to see this kind of keen social observation from many Mainland films in the future. It is dark but compelling stuff. Recommended for fans of noir thrillers and Chinese cinema slightly outside the current jingoistic-mainstream, Back to the Wharf releases today (1/17) on VOD.