Oddly structured but compelling look at Fujian Province's immigration headaches.
Another of the Asian contingent to hit Edinburgh's mean streets this festival season comes in the shape of this feature debut from director Robin Weng, purporting to be a study of his native Fujian Province in South-East China. One of the first provinces to allow free (-ish, for given values of free) travel outside of the national boundary after the Communist assumption of power, this has left the Province with a rather unusual cultural makeup which certainly seems ripe for some sort of discussion.
The main thrust of the piece is illegal immigration, however, and for those in Britain who are convinced by the faux-outrage from the Daily Mail decrying them as responsible for all of the country's ills they perhaps ought to be forced to watch this to realise it's as much of a problem for China, and more pressingly an immediate and massive problem for those doing the emigrating. Incidentally, if anyone has figured out how to work and live in Britain and still have money to send to relatives, please let me know. It's not something I've been able to figure out thus far in my life.
The structure of Fujian Blue is somewhat... odd, for want of a better term. We're initially introduced to a group of young men who seem mostly concerned with spending money on drink, drugs and karaoke bars, which while perhaps pointless is not inherently different from the aims of many across the world. Of more immediate cause for moral concern is the way the yoofs make their wonga, in this case by taking advantage of the large number of 'remittance widows' in the more affluent areas of the city. Some women are kept in relative affluence, living on money sent back to the country from their husbands who have sought their fortune abroad. Being naturally lonely as a by-product of this, many of them seek comfort in the arms of young lovers.
Which is where our little gang and a video camera come in. Operating a honey trap outfit, one of the gang seduces a target with the others capturing proof to be used for a spot of blackmail. Very enterprising. This little scam sees them in good stead for a short while, until one of the gang, Amerika (Zhu Xiaopeng), decides to teach his mother a lesson for some perceived wrongdoing by setting her up for their unique treatment.
It's clear from the outset that this isn't a particularly awesome idea, reinforced when Amerika's mother relates what's going on to the local Triad boss. With a ruthless crime syndicate about to start an investigation into their activities, the gang decide to lie low on their costal hometown. At which point, the film changes tack so suddenly and completely that the film might as well chop itself in two.
Abruptly turning from a nominal thriller structure into a more sedate and thoughtful examination of the reasons why young Chinese would risk the crippling debts to crime syndicates and for most, years of effectual slavery to Triad outfits in whichever country they opt for, assuming they survive the journey, of course.
In particular this looks at the decision of one of the gang named Dragon (Luo Jin), looking to go abroad seemingly less out of any personal avarice than a need to help out his struggling family for whom the fishing industry's decline is proving to be a nuisance, especially as they are already in hock for fees incurred in sending other family members overseas. With narrative taking less of a driving seat in this section, it almost becomes in danger of becoming as much of a picture postcard as a piece of drama however a believable and sympathetic turn from Luo Jin means that the film pretty much carries off this thematic right turn which could rather easily have sunk the experience without a trace.
Robin Weng pulls off this gutsy move, but only just. It's somewhat annoying that the promising underworld thriller that was developing in the first half is so suddenly and jarringly yanked away, with plot threads abruptly severed rather than tied up though a few deus ex machinas allowing for the second part to occur unhindered by preceding events, which does rather beg the question of why this has been so obviously and deliberately designed as two wholly separate films cut 'n' shut together that merely happen to share the same cast.
Still, as long as you aren't predisposed to find that sort of thing inordinately irritating then there's a great deal to like in this film. Performances, with the minor exception of a few massively stilted bit part supporting roles are never less than good and often rather great. While at points in the early running it seems as though it may dissolve into a Communist propaganda piece, this never materialises and there seems to be an undercurrent of critique to the regime, albeit one that a film made in China can't ever hope to make more obvious lest the film be banned and the makers arrested, of course. Perhaps the most heart-rending moment of the film is reserved for the credit roll, with a telephone interview of a mother whose child left for Britain and hasn't heard from him in some time. It was her fervent wish that he was not amongst those killed in that cockle picking incident in Morecambe, although she isn't entirely sure.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Zhu Xiaopeng (Amerika)
Zhuang Jianjie (Roppongi)
Weng Feng (Phoenix)
Wang Ruiyun (Amerika's mom)