I’ve made no secret that I’m not a big fan of Asian cinema so when I decided to check out DUCKWEED (乘风破浪, an expression meaning “to have high ambitions”), the latest box office smash from mainland China, I did so expecting to be underwhelmed if not bored to tears. Well, surprise, surprise! I wasn’t at all. The second film by Chinese wunderkind Han Han/韩寒 (his third as writer) is not very deep or meaningful but it is fairly entertaining.
In the film, which supposedly starts off in the near future though you wouldn’t know it, rally car driver Xu Tailang (Chinese actor Deng Chao/鄧超) has just won his first professional race. When asked by the adoring media for a statement, he decides to publicly call out his father, Xu Chengzheng (Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng/彭于晏 in bad makeup), for discouraging him from entering this profession and for being an all-round jerk of a dad. He then puts his father into the passenger seat of his car and drives off. In an attempt to either impress or scare the bejesus out of the old guy, “Ah Lang” takes every corner at top speed. Unfortunately, he doesn’t count on a freight train cutting across his path and he crashes his car sidelong into the locomotive. Ah Lang is then rushed to the hospital and, just before he loses consciousness, he sees his life pass before his eyes. Instead of dying though, he gets transported back to 1998, the year before he was born, to the small town in China where his father is the leader of a two-bit gang. There, he immediately befriends his dad, hoping to understand the man better, if not change his behaviour, and to meet his mother, a woman who committed suicide soon after he was born.
If this sounds a bit like BACK TO THE FUTURE meets GOODFELLAS, you wouldn’t be wrong but it generally works thanks to the performances of Deng and Peng. Deng has good comedic timing and is reminiscent of a young Jackie Chan even if his acrobatics aren’t in the same league. Peng, who recently appeared in Matt Damon’s THE GREAT WALL, also shows off his comedic chops though his character is rather one-dimensional. The subordinate players, Zanilia Zhao/趙麗穎, as Ah Cheng’s devoted girlfriend, Xiao Hua; Gao Huayang/高華陽, as hapless gang member, Liu Yi (“6-1”); and Dong Zijian/董子健, as computer nerd, Ma Huateng or Xiao Ma, are equally delightful to watch. (It’s no coincidence that Ma Huateng is also the name of the founder and CEO of Chinese Internet giant, Tencent, a joke not lost on Hong Kong audiences.)
Director Han, whose résumé also includes professional rally car driver, singer, best-selling author, magazine editor and China’s most popular blogger, takes a nostalgic look at China just at the time when it was starting to take off economically. Although belching smokestacks can be seen in the distance, one character doesn’t think twice about diving headlong into a river, traffic jams are non-existent and pagers (or “bb qi”, as they were called locally back in the day) are ubiquitous. Like BACK TO THE FUTURE, the film pokes fun at things we thought would be around forever — like pagers, karaoke bars and VHS rental shops — and gives a sly wink to things we now take for granted that weren’t around in 1998.
DUCKWEED was only released in China seven weeks ago but it has already surged past a billion renminbi (over US$150 million) at the box office, making it one of the highest grossing Chinese films so far this year.
If you’re looking for some light entertainment, you could do far worse than this film. And as for why it was given the English title of DUCKWEED, I have no idea!
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