The Movie Waffler First Look Review - BACK TO THE WHARF | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - BACK TO THE WHARF

Back to the Wharf review
Returning to his hometown after being wrongly accused of murder, a man rekindles a romance with an old classmate.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Li Xiaofeng

Starring: Zhang Yu, Song Jia, Wang Yanhui, Lee Hong-Chi

Back to the Wharf poster

Childishly, when reviewing a Chinese film, I am always thrilled by the obligatory title card which appears at the start. A fanfare introduces an imperious colour scheme of emerald, scarlet and gold which constitutes a dragon, film strips and the bi-lingual legend "China Film Administration" - wow! Of course, as any fule kno, this impressive state branding ultimately explicates the strict control which the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party exerts over films made and, indeed, exhibited in the country. And while it is in rather bad taste from my liberated western privilege (viz. the gay Chinese kids whose sexuality and alienation has no reassuring representation, for example), I do like the pomp and the ceremony of it all: this is a film that has been Taken Seriously.

Moreover, the title card is a northern star for the film's ideologies and purpose, which often pertains to China itself. In the case of Back to the Wharf, Xiaofeng Li (director) and Xin Yu's (writer) enjoyable melodrama, the narrative concerns the return of its besieged protagonist to his hometown after 15 years in isolation following a tragic accident, but the themes duly implicate the industrialisation of China, insidious capitalism and the partisan nature of authority.

Back to the Wharf review

In its opening, schoolboy Song Hao (Yu Zhang, eventually) is all excited about his upcoming scholarship to college; a reward which he has grafted for over the years. At the top of his class, Song Hao counts on further education as an escape from the confines of his small town. Problem is, the place ends up being given to his mate Li Tang, who just happens to be the son of the local mayor... Pull the other one, Headmaster. It's got zhongs on.

Song Hao is understandably fuming and, in a youthful flush of hot-headedness, peddles off on his little BMX to confront the mayor. He only ends up going into the wrong house, though, and, after a struggle with a bloke who thinks he's a burglar, ends up accidentally murdering him to death with a knife. Song Hao accordingly undergoes a literal escape, where he flees to another part of the country as an industrial labourer (a brutal opposition to his academic aspirations, implying the probable destiny of most poor Chinese kids), only returning 15 years later when news of his mother's death reaches him.

Back to the Wharf review

Upon his recrudescence, it turns out Li Tang has become an evil property developer (is there any other kind?) in a killer purple suit which markedly contrasts Song Hao's utilitarian garb (seriously, what a suit: after the film I spent ages looking for a similar one online to no luck. Very exclusive, it seems). Furthermore, Sang Hao's dad is in hock to Ling Tan, who has given him a lucrative promotion. Ling Tan also has plans to demolish the tower block where Wan Xiaoning, the victim's now grown-up daughter orphaned by Song Hao a decade and a half ago, lives. Finally, Ling Tan knew all along what happened that night, as does Song Hao's dad, giving way to a febrile atmosphere of shade and compromise.

It's not all bad though, as, thrown into the melodramatic mix is Pan Xiaoshuang (Song Jia - very funny and beautiful), who has held a candle for Song Hao ever since she saw him years ago, shell suit jacket discarded due to blood stains, wailing topless into the pathetic fallacy storm of that fateful evening. Pan Xiaoshuang's long held love is another hangover from the murder, a further suggestion that one man's inadvertent adolescent actions have directly sealed the collective fate of the town. A (more) downbeat It's a Wonderful Life, in a way.

Back to the Wharf review

For a film predicated on soapy interaction, Back to the Wharf never skimps on visual pleasure. Throughout, the film feels and looks epic in scope, especially at the start, where the use of circumscribed space and the agitated motions of its characters create a sensation of tight systemisation. In the latter half, Song Hao wanders inert through the visibly developing landscape, acted upon by Ling Tan and Pan Xiaoshuang. He is a man whose circumstances have rendered him an NPC in a world of movers and shakers. In this part of the film, Back to the Wharf occasionally mirrors the aimlessness of its main character, and as we trudge inexorably towards the film's bleak ending the drama doesn't quite have the thriller urgency of the opening hour.

However, Xiaofeng Li and Xin Yu's film does dare to challenge CCP orthodoxy: the headmaster reasons with the young Song Hao that he "prioritises the collective over the individual" when really he's just keeping the mayor sweet, and Ling Tan's data is "state approved," which implies a federal complicity with his avaricious designs. This working within the lines is both subtle and bold: a final title card appears before the credits, informing us in a bloated rush of text that the real villains were counteracted, Poochie died on the way back to his home planet, and Everything Is Alright. Surely mandated, this interference contradicts the events of Back to the Wharf's final reel, but in doing so inadvertently consolidates the film's philosophy of unjust and heedless regulation.

Back to the Wharf is on US VOD from January 17th. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.

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