Sunday, May 14, 2023

The Enigma of Arrival, on

These teens have no future and they know it. The kind of Chinese films that tell their sort of stories do not have much future either, but nobody wants to admit it. It is harder to see Chinese cinema that accurately represents the extreme economic stratification and open public corruption that is rife throughout the Mainland, but a drop-out like Zhao Xiaolong can see it clearly. Out of his wild social circle, Li Dongdong is one of the few with any ambitions, but she is the one who winds up dead in Song Wen’s The Enigma of Arrival, which premieres Thursday on

Fang Yuan thinks he is the alpha of his gang of running mates, so Li must be attracted to him. However, she actually carries a torch for the strong, silent Zhao, because she can tell he is the real man of the group. Yet, he just cannot handle romance or much of any kind of close relationship. Nevertheless, her presumed murder will impact him greatly. Even when he meets his old friends years later during their in medea res reunion, Li Dongdong is really the only thing on his mind.

On the surface,
Enigma of Arrival (which has nothing to do with de Chirico or Naipaul) is definitely a thriller, but there is a lot of social observation and critique baked into every frame, much like Back to the Wharf. The film wears its Wong Kar-wai influences proudly, not on its sleeve, but up on its lapel. The ne-er do well punks even attend a Days of Being Wild screening, just for the sex scene. (Nowadays, they probably can’t even do that, when out on the hunt for some risqué entertainment in Mainland China.)

The poverty and corruption Song incorporates into the narrative is not even subtext, but the central mystery still unfolds in an intriguing “half-
Rashomon”-style. Yet, the truth will be revealed and it will be painfully bitter.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the film’s best performance comes from Gu Xuan as Li. Instead of a cypher everyone projects upon, she is the most human of the lot, so her loss means something. It is a sensitive, vulnerable turn from Gu, whose credits are oddly limited, despite starring as Shirley Yang in two
Ghost Blows Out the Lamp movies.

Li Xian does not show the same range, but he broods so hard as Zhao, you could almost get an ulcer just from watching him. Li Zonglei is spectacularly sleazy as Wu Yi, the mobbed-up owner of their favorite dive restaurant, whom they really ought to keep more at arm’s length. Dong Borui and in Xiaofan are almost interchangeably thuggish as Fang Yuan and Dai Siwen, but Zhang Qiyan is tartly funny and ultimately quite haunting as Liu Xiaomei, Li’s BFF, a minor supporting role Zhang elevates and expands through the force of her screen presence.

Enigma of Arrival
is pre-Wuhan Covid-cover-up, pre-Hong Kong National Security takeover, and pre-spy balloon. Since 2018, Chinese cinema has become much more nationalistic, jingoistic, and simplistic. You will not see the kind of ethical dilemmas and moral rot that are integral to Enigma from Chinese filmmakers working within the system going forward. Instead, recent Chinese films are very loud and very boring. Watch Enigma of Arrival instead. It is a potent concoction of anger and regret. Highly recommended, it premieres Thursday (5/18) on