An Inaccurate Memoir 匹夫
War black comedy
2012, colour, 2.35:1, 105 mins
Directed by Leon Yang (楊樹鵬)
By Derek Elley
Thu, 24 May 2012, 09:15 AM (HKT)
Actor Huang Xiaoming shines in a quirky, blackly comic tale of bandit heroes during WW2. Largely Asian and genre events.
Taiping (Peace) town, somewhere in northern China, summer, 1942. Undercover soldier Gao Dongliang (Zhang Yi) leads a small group to assassinate a prince of the Japanese royal family but the plan is unmasked and they are ambushed. Only Dongliang escapes alive, and secretly returns to Taiping. One day, woken by the noise of a huge Buddhist statue the occupying Japanese are planning to erect in the town, Dongliang watches as a group of bandits faultlessly execute a plan to free their leader, Fang Youwang (Huang Xiaoming), who's being held in prison. The bandit group comprises the long-haired, louche Chen Langzhong (Tino Bao), cook Zhao (Wang Yi), veteran Han Kui (Wang Lie), tomboy Black Dog (Ni Jingyang), young student Liang Hao (Zhang Yue), explosives specialist Yue Sanbao (Sun Lei) and Youwang's younger sister, Fang Zizhen (Zhang Xinyi). Posing as a young gentleman, Dongliang later infiltrates the bandit group by letting himself be captured. After refusing to sign a ransom note, he's tortured in their underground hideaway, but is cared for by Zizhen, who takes a liking to him. He later wins the bandits' confidence by securing their release from the local police chief (Gao Qunshu) after a bank robbery goes wrong. Later, when most of the bandits narrowly escape a Japanese raid on their hideaway, Dongliang is forced to reveal his true motive in joining the group - to secure their help in killing the Japanese prince, who is due to arrive in Taiping for the inauguration of the Buddhist statue. But Youwang has an alternative idea.
Part western, part martial arts homage, part Sino-Japanese resistance drama riff, An Inaccurate Memoir 匹夫 is a bustling mixture of genre references and colourful characters that ultimately celebrates the heroism of unnamed "ordinary people" (its Chinese title). Very similar in tone and earthy feel to his previous black comedy, the village-set Seven Samurai 七人の侍 (1954) riff The Robbers 我的唐朝兄弟 (2009), and drawing on elements in his debut, war drama The Cold Flame 烽火 (2007), this third feature by self-trained film-maker YANG Shupeng 楊樹鵬 is a thoroughly enjoyable, quirky entertainment that lacks the sheer scope and operatic quality of, say, JIANG Wen 姜文's Let the Bullets Fly 讓子彈飛 (2010) but is very much in the same spirit. It also provides one of the meatiest roles so far for Mainland pin-up HUANG Xiaoming 黃曉明 (who invested in the film), as a bandit leader who can't see further than making money from plunder and kidnapping.
China has no shortage of anti-Japanese resistance dramas, or of films in which self-obsessed characters are drawn to the greater national cause, but Memoir manages to celebrate ordinary heroism while also maintaining a blackly comic tone towards its characters. As undercover soldier Dongliang infiltrates Youwang's bandit gang to recruit them to his mission to assassinate a Japanese prince, fumbling becomes the order of the day. In their lavish underground hideaway, complete with an electric generator, the bandits don't really know what to do with Dongliang, who meanwhile falls for Youwang's waspish younger sister. In the best of several setpieces, Dongliang clumsily bargains for her release from the local police chief — slyly played by film director GAO Qunshu 高群書 (The Message 風聲 (2009), Wind Blast 西風烈 (2010)) — when a bank robbery by the bandits in carnival masks goes wrong, and ends up freeing the whole gang. The combination of rough, northern-style humour and chaotic improvisation is very typical of the film as a whole.
Though the characters have no background — apart from a brief flashback five years earlier — the members of the bandit gang gradually emerge as individuals in their own right, a ragged collection of killers and misfits led by the charismatic Youwang, who keeps popping off for carnal interludes with a local courtesan (hotly sketched by BAI Yameng 柏亞盟). By the time the story returns to its opening sequence, 80 minutes later, they're familiar enough to give the explosive finale some emotional force. As in The Robbers, a coda underlines the central theme in a simple but engaging way.
Though it's Huang's movie, TV actor ZHANG Yi 張譯 is okay as his lighter foil Dongliang. Among the bandits, the women make the most impression, with ZHANG Xinyi 張歆藝 (the police officer in The Longest Night In Shanghai 夜上海 (2006) and conwoman in Lost on Journey 人在囧途 (2010)) strong as Youwang's sister, and TV actress NI Jingyang 倪景陽 solid as the taciturn, dagger-throwing Black Dog. Hong Kong's Waise LEE 李子雄 pops up early on in a single scene as a venal officer.
D.p. CAO Yu 曹郁 (Kekexili: Mountain Patrol 可可西里 (2004), City of Life and Death 南京！南京！ (2008)) catches the most from the dusty, sun-burnt Hebei landscape and the bandits' busy underground HQ, with handheld camera focusing on actors' faces in action and intimate moments. Action scenes are not lavishly staged but, as in the early sequence of Youwang's rescue, are sharply edited, with credited assistance from US TV and documentary editor Eric Myerson. Yang's use of red, brush-drawn credits and character captions seems to deliberately recall an earlier age of generic action dramas.
An "international cut" is reportedly in the works, though the movie works just fine in its original release version. A much better English title, mirroring the Chinese, would be Ordinary Heroes.
ContactSales: Golden Network Asia, Hong Kong (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Theatrical release: China, 24 Apr 2012.
Presented by Panorama Pictures (CN), Enlight Pictures (CN), Beijing Taiyao Cultural Workshop (CN). Produced by Panorama Pictures (CN), Backlight Image (CN), Beijing Hsu's Media (CN), in association with Hebei Film Studio. Executive producers: Ruby Chen, Wang Changtian, Huang Xiaoming. Producers: Amber Wang, Yan Zi, Li Xiaoping, Hsu Bing-hsi, Xu Lin, Huang Bin.
Script: Leon Yang, Zhang Xiaobei, Lao Huang. Photography: Cao Yu. Editing: Fang Lei, Leon Yang, Eric Myerson. Music: Peng Kaili. Production design: Mifeng [Xian Ruiqing]. Costume design: Yang Dan. Sound: Zhao Nan, Yang Jiang. Action: Fu Bin. Special effects: Yang Fu-ding. Visual effects: Allen Yang (Wonderstar Visual Effects).
Cast: Huang Xiaoming (Fang Youwang), Zhang Yi (Gao Dongliang), Zhang Xinyi (Fang Zizhen/Jen), Wang Lie (Han Kui), Ni Jingyang (Black Dog/Lady Dagger), Sun Lei (Yue Sanbao), Zhang Yue (Liang Hao/Lassie), Tino Bao (Chen Langzhong/Charlatan), Hiruma Yoshinori (Morikawa Daisuke), Kashikura Yuta (Noguchi, the Japanese prisoner), Ma Zhiming (Leopard Xue/Jaguar), Gao Qunshu (chief detective), Waise Lee (Captain Zhao), Liang Jing (Zhen Xiaoqi/Madame Seven), Song Fang (bank manager), Tan Yuan (Xiao Chun), Han Shuo (Er Bao), Chu Shaonan (Madame Peony), Luo Kang (Japanese prince), Asano Nagahide (Kato), Jiang Shan (chief detective's wife), Jin Meiling (Japanese princess), Ma Liang, Han Long (men in black), Ma Qian (Leopard Xue's servant), Lü Guang (taoist), Wang Yi (Zhao, the cook), Li Meng, Mandy (Japanese princess' servants), Hu Yi (Lai Xi/Lucky, Gao's "servant"), Xian Ruiqing, Wang Sengui, Zhang Jingyi, Ji Yuchen, Miao Binqing (Japanese generals), Jin Xin, Chen Zhengyu (Japanese officers), Jia Dinan, Guo Wei, Fu Bin (collaborationist officers), An Xin (dancer), Zhang Jie (teahouse owner), Yoshitomi Haruki (Japanese translator).