Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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JIANG JIACHEN: LOOKING FOR LUCKY - NYAFF

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DING XINHE (LEFT) IN LOOKING FOR LUCKY

Getting ahead and falling behind

Looking for Lucky is a Chinese comedy-satire about contentiousness and insecurity. The latter exists for nearly all of us, particularly millennials, in a world where there are hardly any truly secure jobs anymore. In fact this film is so realistic, if ramped-up, and anxious, it's hard to see it as a comedy at times. Nonetheless if may have wide appeal, and Jiang Jiachen stands out in his first feature for his original methods and style.

Though the film speaks to today's universal insecurity, it uses very specific regional details of Chinese and more precisely northeastern Chinese culture and language. The director says that in Shenyang, the big city in northeastern China that's his hometown and the setting, "people argue continuously." The continuous quarreling involves everybody. As elsewhere in China, bribes are carefully calibrated, even refereed by the police. If you cause any harm that may be actionable, an immediate payoff is expected, and advisable.

This issue comes up immediately, and maybe nothing quite matches the opening sequence for comedy, or absurd heightening of Shenyang argumentativeness. Zhang Guangsheng (Ding Xinhe), about to finish his master's degree after three years, has been taking care of his Professor, "Old Niu's," white bulldog, Lucky (certainly an ironic name for him). As somebody pointedly declares later, Guangsheng is Old Niu's dog himself. He's momentarily put the care of the dog in the hands of his father (Yu Hai), a laid-off factory worker. A fat woman with a squalling little boy is accusing Guangsheng's father of allowing the dog to bite the kid's finger. The father begs to differ. A little crowd has gathered. Everyone is shouting at the top of their lungs. The dog, however, has disappeared. Guangsheng's father didn't have it on a leash and has let it get out of his sight.

When Guangsheng arrives, he is immediately in a panic. He vociferously blames his father for his negligence. Guangsheng and his father are continually arguing through most of the movie. But this is a father-son buddy picture. Before the end, the dad's true caring emerges from beneath the contentiousness. Guangsheng's panic leads him into other traps and payoffs besides the fat lady. His (also fat, and comedic-intense) printshop owning buddy insists he must offer a reward for a finder of the dog, and when the notice goes up, some scammers offer a whitish bulldog, then force him to take it by threatening to eat it if he doesn't.

For contrast, view, if you can, French comic maaster Étienne Chatiliez's 2001 comedy Tanguy. That too is about a graduate student whose future is uncertain, and is full of feelings of anxiety, sometimes on the part of the student, Tanguy, more often on that of his beleaguered dear maman and papà. His speciality, incidentally, is Chinese. Chatilliez's highly-crafted film maintains a light atmosphere even when the parents are being driven nutty by their pretentious, though exemplary, son who just never seems to be going to move out and leave them in peace. But the posh bourgeois setting of Tanguy and its elaborately constructed, and more leisurely, scenes allow the viewer more breathing room to enjoy the fun at an enjoyable remove, even though stay-at-home adult children are becoming more familiar in the first world.

In his director's statement for Hong Kong the thirty-four-year-old director lays claim to "a sense of absurdness" in his premise of "a young guy" who is "looking for a dog and a job upon graduation." There is confidence and intensity in Jiang's Cassavetes-style improvisation and a structure that disappears in the action. But it is the 61 long takes of unrelieved nervous action whose exhausting intensity makes it harder to see this movie as laughable or a satire because the comedy is so high strung.

The dog serves as a symbol of subservience, the subservience of Guangsheng to his professor, the subservience of everyone, especially millennials, to the system. Guangsheng's vague love interest - though he's too busy being servile to his professor to pursue it, if that were even allowable - is a young female student in his year who turns out to have her own way of getting ahead. As the film brings in fellow students Jiang's strong sense of the milieu and particularly of economic factors comes through even more. Though Guangsheng departs for some job as a finale and Old Niu has been suitably dealt with, Looking for Lucky isn't about resolution. It's about the problem, and the absurdities and extremes it leads people into.

Looking for Lucky debuted at Hong Kong , also showing at Shanghai, receiving the Asian New Talent Award and two nominations there. It was screened for this review as part of the NYAFF, showing 8 July at 2:30 PM.

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DING XINHE AND YU HAI IN LOOKING FOR LUCKY

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