Cha Wu Ci Ren (2011)

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A man must solve two heinous crimes . . . and the mystery of his own existence!
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vt To Forgive
China / 94 minutes / color / Beijing Film Studio, Beijing Bigfish Media, World Media Advertising, Beijing Yi Jiu Qi Jiu Dir & Scr: Zhu Minjiang Pr: Wu Xiangwei Cine: Han Qiming Cast: Yu Xiaowei, Vivian Wu, Qiao Renliang (i.e., Kimi Qiao), Law Kar Ying, Liu Nanxi, Li Hongquan, Zhou Zhonghe, Wang Yongquan, Bai Jinbo, Guo Yi-wen, Feng Dalu.

To Forgive - 0 opener

Noted heart surgeon Gu Daqing (Feng) has died at the age of 55 from a myocardial infarction—a physician who failed to heal himself. His son Gu Jie (Yu), also a physician, reverently places the urn full of dad’s ashes at the cemetery but, as he leaves, is arrested by a phonecall. A curious whispering voice asks him: “What special day is the 19th? The big day is approaching. He couldn’t wait the four days.” Furthermore, the voice informs him, the ashes have already been stolen.

To Forgive - 1 Jie tries to identify the strange caller

Jie (Yu Xiaowei) tries to identify the strange caller among the crowd at the cemetery.

Jie dashes back to find that this is indeed true. With occasional further phoned prompts from the mystery voice, he drives in pursuit of a truck he believes is the caller’s. After being told the ashes are at the Shunlai Hotel, he’s so preoccupied that he doesn’t notice a dumptruck coming. It smashes his car across the road, and the last we see of this section of the movie is Jie being pulled from the wreckage . . .

He wakens on the hostile rocky seashore of what we soon learn is an island. It is the 16th; still a few days to go until the 19th. Spotting a wooden shipping container on the nearby clifftop, he climbs up to it and finds within it a girl, bound and gagged. Before he can free her, a troop of rescuers rush in, led by her father, Jia Kuan (Li), who accuses Jie of kidnapping her and tells him to get off the island pronto.

To Forgive - 2 Jie approaches the container on the clifftop

Jie (Yu Xiaowei) approaches the container on the rugged clifftop.

But Jie doesn’t. Instead, he encounters, walking among the fields, a pretty young woman, Nana (Liu), who points out to him that she’s being watched by her Dumb Uncle (Wang); the latter is dumb as in inability to speak, not as in stupidity. When she has a minor heart seizure, Jie gets her through it; they discover they’re connected in that Jie’s father operated on her many years ago, when she was a child.

To Forgive - 4 Jie meets Nana

Jie’s first proper sight of Nana (Liu Nanxi).

To Forgive - 5 Dumb Uncle lurks as Jie and Nana meet

Dumb Uncle (Wang Yongquan) lurks as Jie and Nana meet.

Nana takes him into town, where soon he finds the Shunlai Hotel; with more difficulty, he locates the hotel’s room #327, whose door opens with the appropriately numbered key he’s found in his pocket. There’s another phonecall, this time telling him: “Welcome to the game.”

To Forgive - 3 The key that appears in Jie's pocket

To Forgive - 6 The spooky corridors of the Shunlai Hotel

The spooky corridors of the Shunlai Hotel.

By now we’re fairly well convinced that what we’re witnessing are not real events but some kind of fever dream that Jie’s undergoing as he lies in a coma in the hospital. Even so, the dream—with all its illogicalities of progression, with sudden jumps in Jie’s location and shifts in perspective—manages to tell a neonoirish mystery tale, involving the solution of a crime committed twenty years ago and a murder committed much more recently that we learn about only right at the end. The overall effect (and also the often gloomy lighting and the stagy urban setting) reminded me of Alex Proyas’s DARK CITY (1998), where individual events seem quite logical yet, when strung together, appear not to make sense, as if a selection of perfectly valid words were strung together to form a nonsensical sentence. And yet, again as with Dark City, the tale as a whole can be put together in such a way as to be coherent.

The long ago crime was the rape of Nana’s mother, the widow Yu Zhi (Wu). The rapist bribed Yu Zhi as well as a group of witnesses—Jia Kuan, Dumb Uncle, Lai “Monkey” Weihou (Zhou) and the barber Old Yan (Law)—to pin the crime on a local cripple, Niu San (Guo). Soon after, Niu San, reviled by all, threw himself off the cliff to his death. Now the town is alive to rumors that the ghost of Niu San has returned to haunt his accusers.

To Forgive - 7 Uncle Yan the barber

Uncle Yan (Law Kar Ying) the barber.

The familial relationships between these people take a little following. Old (or Uncle) Yan is Nana’s father, although he and Yu Zhi have never married. At one point Nana tells Jie, “I just envy all of you who have your own fathers. But I know who my father is. I just don’t know any good reason why they can’t be together.” Her parents love each other, yet their dealings are prickly. Dumb Uncle has an adopted son, Li Chun (Qiao), and there seems to be an assumption that Li Chun and Nana will eventually pair up. Monkey is uncle to Li Chun (there’s got to be a “monkey’s uncle” joke in there somewhere), which presumably means he’s uncle also to Nana . . .

To Forgive - 10 Jia Kuan is not best pleased with Jie

Jia Kuan (Li Hongquan) expresses his displeasure.

Jie’s first real clue as to what really went on that day twenty years ago comes when Dumb Uncle suddenly breaks his silence. He has been punishing himself by a refusal to speak all this time, he tells Jie, because he lied about what happened on that dreadful day. Unfortunately, he then falls to his death, so Jie can’t get any more out of him. (There’s a lot of falling to death in the movie. As well as the demises of Dumb Uncle and Niu San, Jie’s mother threw herself from a high window because of a betrayal by his father.)

To Forgive - 11 Monkey

 Monkey (Zhou Zhonghe).

Jie gets further bits and pieces of the story out of the other participants. There are also photographic clues—first a photo of Niu San, and then torn-off fragments of a group photo of most of the other conspirators.

To Forgive - 8 The photograph of Niu San

The photograph of Niu San (Guo Yi-wen).

To Forgive - 12 Discovered at last, the group photo whose fragments Jie has been discovering

 Discovered at last, the group photo whose fragments Jie has been discovering.

Roughly an hour into the movie, we finally have the full explanation of what really happened—the rape, the bribing rapist, the framing of Niu San—and thereafter it seems clearer why the events of the present (i.e., those of Jie’s dream) are happening. Except it turns out we were wrong in jumping to such a hasty conclusion. Someone has been pulling everyone’s strings to make these events happen, and the revelation of the puppeteer’s identity comes right out of the blue.

To Forgive - 9 The widow Yu Zhi

The widow Yu Zhi (Vivian Wu).

In what’s nearly the finale, the puppeteer has all the other principals trapped inside the shipping container we saw near the start, and has hoisted it by crane high above the ground . . .

To Forgive - 15 The puppeteer reveals himself at last

The puppeteer reveals himself at last . . . about one frame after this screengrab.

To Forgive - 16 There are people inside that container . . .

There are people inside that container . . .

While I’ve compared the movie to Dark City, another valid comparison is with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). Assuming the interpretation is correct that what we’re witnessing is the comatic Jie’s dream (or perhaps he’s dying in the road accident, trying to make sense of all the images as the whole of his life flashes before his eyes), he has been sent down the rabbit hole of his own unconscious. Yet it’s possible that this interpretation is awry. The movie never confirms it—we’re left instead with the shocking conclusion to a murder mystery we were just barely aware existed—and some of the events of the “dream” are seen not from Jie’s viewpoint but that of one or another supporting character.

To Forgive - 13

To Forgive - 14 Li Chun

Qiao Renliang, apparently a pop idol in China, as Li Chun.

The movie’s Mandarin title translates as “No Such Person”; both titles encapsulate the meaning behind the tale. The puppeteer cannot learn how to forgive; Jie must discover how to forgive not just his father but himself. There’s no such person as Niu San the rapist; and Niu San the non-rapist was stripped of personhood by the uneducated locals because he was crippled. There’s no such person as the revered Gu Daqing; that figure was a construct made for the world to see.

To Forgive - 17 Gu Daqing

The not-so-revered Gu Daqing (Feng Dalu).

I’ve mentioned the lighting; it and the cinematography are excellent. I’m told that the dialogue limps a bit if you’re a Mandarin speaker; I’m not, and the subtitles limped no more than subtitles ordinarily do. I can find no fault with the performances. While I fell in love immediately with Liu Nanxi—which I think is what we’re all supposed to do—it’s the central performance of Yu Xiaowei (also known as Calvin Yu) that’s most impressive. The scenes without him are fairly rare and usually he’s the focus of attention. His face is so unremittingly grim—made so by the experiences he’s having—that during the movie’s wrapup sequence Nana teases him about it: “Are you able to smile?” (And he does.) Yet he manages to give us a really quite layered portrayal of Jie, the sensitive physician who has stopped practicing medicine because of something that happened . . .

This is one of the more intriguing movies I’ve seen in a while, and I’m sure I’ll be racking it up for another watch soon, just to explore its world at greater depth and pick up things I might have missed first time around. (It helps that, unlike so many Chinese movies, it’s not two and a half hours long.) Its initial critical reception seems to have been lukewarm—along the lines of “a promising debut from director Zhu Minjiang, but . . .”—but it seems to me a much better movie than that.

From what little I’ve seen of Chinese (as opposed to HK) neonoir, I get the impression that directors there are quite keen to push the boundaries of the genre back in imaginative, unexpected directions, and are doing so with a fair degree of success. It would be pleasing if some of their efforts were given a more widespread theatrical outing in the West.

To Forgive - closer

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2 thoughts on “Cha Wu Ci Ren (2011)

  1. Your superbly written account makes this most appealing John! I am normally quite taken by the fever dream concept and I am a fan of DARK CITY, which you do reference here a few times. You had me hanging with every work here!

    • Many thanks for the kind words, Sam — especially when you must be Exhaustion On Legs after your Tribeca week!

      I went into this movie with no great expectations — I knew virtually nothing about it — and was very pleasantly surprised by what I found.

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