'Uncle Victory' ('Shengli'): Vladivostok Review

Chinese director Zhang Meng explores the much-traveled trope of children melting a tough guy's heart in a story of an ex-con starting a new life by running a kindergarten.

Mainland Chinese filmmaker Zhang Meng's latest arrives with a strange pedigree. Uncle Victory won the Jury Grand Prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June without ever actually making its bow in public, with organizers canceling its screenings, striking its information from catalogs and even preventing journalists from asking questions about it in press conferences — all because of leading actor Huang Haibo's arrest and subsequent detention for hiring a prostitute a month prior to the film's premiere.

In another time and place, this real-life scenario would have provided Uncle Victory with a bizarre marketing gimmick, given that the film revolves around a man's pursuit of redemption and rehabilitation upon his release from prison. As the Chinese authorities escalate their campaign to eradicate their vision of immorality — a sweep which has led to high-profile arrests of drug-taking, prostitute-procuring celebrities — Uncle Victory's chances of securing a release at home is very slim. Its future thus lies on the road, and its competition berth at Vladivostok kicks off a run that will make stops at Vancouver and Hamburg. Its U.S. premiere will take place Nov. 2 at UCLA as part of the China Onscreen Biennial program.

It's perhaps ironic that Zhang has to hedge his bets on the festival circuit with his most crowd-pleasing outing to date. While at times amplifying the dark, deadpan humor that first came to the fore with his 2010 critics' hit The Piano in a Factory, Zhang has shown a stylistic regression toward genre conventions with the presence of a vacuous femme fatale, exposition through shaky-camera flashbacks and a bombastic action-fueled finale that runs against the heavily stylized visual motifs that made the film (or at least the first half of it) intriguing in the first place.

The film's title alludes to Huang's Shengli ("victory" in Chinese), a former gangster seeking to reboot his life after finishing a 10-year prison sentence. Set against the gloomy milieu of a postindustrial town in northeastern China — amid the gray factories, tenements and public buildings, there's nary a cellphone or computer in sight — he easily could have been Zhang's answer to Aki Kaurismaki's trademark droll man-on-the-margins. With static framing and crisp editing, Shengli's dismay comically is brought to the surface as he wanders around his turf, popping in and out of an empty dive, blasting cheesy 1980s-style disco and tolerating the many tenants doing business out of the rooms of the premises where he used to run a nightclub.

When one of his tenants bolts to evade stacked-up debts, Shengli is forced to take over the man's kindergarten. With the help of Xiaomei (Zhang Xinyi), a nurse he met during her night shift as a dancer in a sleazy joint, the ex-con begins his slow trek to normalcy, his tough-guy veneer slowly eaten away by the adoration and naivete of his young charges and his new partner-in-nursery-rhyme. Inevitably, the past returns to haunt him, in the form of both friend (embittered ex-associate Hai, played by Guo Xue) and foe (Tian Yu's Brother Jiao, a former rival now wheelchair-bound and living in squalor on a decommissioned bus).

What shapes up as a series of distractions to Shengli's progress unfortunately ends up distracting the audience, too. While Zhang as always retains his eye for the absurd visual coup de grace — the small children dwarfed by the dauntingly inhuman landscape; books being discarded by a bulldozer — the narrative itself smacks of sentimentality and its characters register as overt ciphers representing the ills of the polluted industrial centers left by the wayside in the pursuit of the so-called Chinese Dream.

However much Uncle Victory stretches as a comical critique of the ennui in the Chinese provinces, the film's aesthetics provide less of a challenge. While mostly technically proficient — Shu Chou has overseen pristine cinematography and Fu Yingzhang's production design is effective in evoking the stranded age engulfing the characters — Uncle Victory is not the artistic departure that could consolidate the talent Zhang has shown in his previous films.