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Wild Goose Lake, The
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by Jay Seaver

4 stars

I may regularly gripe about how crime does not (and can not) pay in Chinese movies, but there are restrictions on what stories you can tell everywhere, and Diao Yi'nan is one of a number of filmmakers who are finding a way to tell a good story within those bounds. Sometimes you can build a nifty yarn out of who will ultimately benefit from the criminals' inevitable capture and how making justice pay can appeal to the criminal in us all.

The film opens on career criminal Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) waiting in the rain for wife Yang Shujun (Regina Wan Qian), only to be greeted by Liu Ai'ai (Kwei Lun-Mei) instead. Two days ago, he was in the middle of a scuffle as territory for the motorcycle-theft racket was handed out, and while his old friend Huahua (Qi Dao) tried to mediate, rival Cat's Eye (Huang Jue) saw a chance to get revenge, and in the aftermath, not only are the local police hunting Zenong down, but a 300,000 yuan reward (roughly $40,000) makes him a tempting target for everyone in an area where that sort of money can be life-changing.

Diao opens the film with a clever little dance as Zenong and Ai'ai creep around what little cover offered near a train station, telling the audience that they need to avoid prying eyes without getting into why yet. The introduction of Ai'ai is especially delicious, hiding her face behind a fogged-up bubble umbrella while still hinting at a femme fatal as she walks, a downward pan to her handbag hinting at secrets. It's a canny use of the tools of the genre that primes the audience and lets Zenong ease the audience into a flashback without it seeming hokey even as we're soon greeted by him hanging back in a crowded room, a doomed moment of cool confidence.

What he's hanging back from is part of what makes the film more than just a cool sort of pastiche; Huahua and other higher-ups in the local underground are running what amounts to a training session in how to steal the latest models of electric motorcycles, or at least detach the valuable battery. The audience will probably smile at this a little, having been through presentations like this before, and identifying with Zenong who wants little to do with this drudgery. They'll likely smile again later when Captain Liu (Liao Fan) starts the manhunt by showing his officers a map almost identical to the one the gangsters were using the divide up territory. Diao takes it a bit further, having one of the rural officers loaned to him mention that he has never fired his gun, even as the earlier scene had quickly turned to violence, setting things on a course they will be unable to return from when one of Zenong's men fires at Cat's Eye's brother. The thieves may be cool and powerful, but the cops are disciplined.

The action still impresses, though; sharp eyes will catch Stanley Tong's name among the producers and guess that he had some hand in connecting Diao with Luo Chong, who leads the action unit. Diao, Luo, and cinematographer Dong Jingsong never let the moments of violence that serve as turning points get taken for granted; there's shock in how quickly that first argument leads to bloodshed, and the way that a slickly-shot competition to steal the most bikes in a single night turns is delightful - you can see characters scheming as they ride their own cycles, and the manner in which things turn shocks the audience enough that they're not so likely to question when Zenong makes a mistake that will likely establish him as a dead man walking.

Hu Ge has some Alain Delon to him in this role, making Zhou Zenong weathered and worn down but never to be underestimated, unable to give up to his detriment. He's able to sell a viewer on the relative nobility of this particular criminal, trying to resolve some things peacefully, defend the honor of his comrades, and see that his wife is looked after, and that lingers a bit even when the walls start closing in and he gets to show the other side that defends his turf viciously and sometimes seems more inconvenienced than appalled when he has to kill. Zenong is always somewhere in between cornered animal and regretful man, and He shows how knowing this weighs upon him.

Kwei Lun-Mei has a somewhat more abstract character to play in Ai'ai; she often seems to be hanging back, knowing how to find an opportunity but not look too ambitious, which is admittedly a fairly useful trait even if you're not starting from "bathing beauty" (a new local form of prostitution which is presumably hard to enforce because it happens on or under the water). She is the one who is probably the most collected despite having yuan signs in her eyes, but she manages to be a wild card in large part because Kwei handles both the scenes where Ai'ai seems like a canny crook and those where she seems like a working woman who sees a chance to move up. Diao could probably have done well to rest a bit more of the movie directly on Kwei's shoulders; the time spent with the gangsters is exciting, but Ai'ai being drawn deeper into danger because the government is offering the sort of money that makes people take dangerous risks is the interesting moral question driving things.

The script does ultimately wind up being a little too much in its detail and double-crosses; the specifics of how these gangsters betray each other isn't the important part of the movie. The perfect amount of twistiness is always hard to find, and this movie comes closer than most while nailing down what contemporary Chinese noir should feel like.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33411&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/06/19 13:15:55
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Directed by
  Yi'nan Diao

Written by
  Yi'nan Diao

  Ge Hu
  Lun-Mei Kwei
  Fan Liao
  Regina Wan
  Liang Qi
  Jue Huang

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