Cao Baoping's crime thriller about three men coming to terms with their murderous misdeeds was a multiple award-winner at the Shanghai Film Festival in June.
A taut and thoughtful thriller which breaks nearly every long-held taboo in Beijing's officially-endorsed film discourse — here's nudity, homosexuality, blurred morality and a finale marked by a deadly miscarriage of justice — Cao Baoping's effective and engaging outing denotes a big leap forward for genre cinema in mainland China. A former prize-winner at San Sebastian (for The Equation of Love and Death) and Berlin (Einstein and Einstein) — Cao has now delivered what is as yet his most refined and accessible piece. Based on journalist-turned-writer Xu Yigua's Dostoyevskian novel Tai Yang Hei Zi ("Sunspots"),The Dead End offers a riveting account of three men confronting their guilt and evading responsibilities over a past misdeed.
Bizarrely, The Dead End was withdrawn from a competition berth at the Rome Film Festival last year not for its outre content, but because of the arrest of actor Gao Hu in a drug bust at home. Stuck in a censor-induced cul-de-sac for months — as scenes were trimmed off to minimise Gao's presence — Cao's film returned with a vengeance at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June, winning both a best director award and a best actor prize shared by three of its leading men (minus the scandal-hit Gao, of course). While not exactly a big blockbuster, The Dead End should reap moderate success at home after its release on Aug. 27. With its pedigree now proven, the film should also be able to make up for all those canceled bookings last year with a sustained trek around the more mainstream-friendly and genre-embracing festivals in the fall.
The performances are indeed excellent. Having cast himself against type as a frivolous heartbreaker in his rom-com directorial debut The Breakup Guru, Deng Chao (American Dreams in China) returns to his metier here as Xiaofeng, a dazed, fidgety auxiliary policeman with a seemingly masochistic habit of putting out cigarettes with his fingers. His buddy, Zidao (Guo Tao, Blind Detective) is a taxi driver who dodges attention of any kind by tallying his good deeds in secret and tolerating bad ones the best he can. Making up this trio of childhood friends is Bijue (Gao), a one-eyed, mentally challenged recluse taking care of the men's shared ward, a young girl called Tail (Xu Xihan), in a far-flung fish farm.
The source of their angst is revealed straight out at the beginning of the film. In a black-and-white sequence, in which the men — seven years younger — are seen scampering away from a secluded mansion in which a family of five lie dead, four of them with their skulls shattered and a fifth, a young woman, completely unclothed. But as "time has shed their skins," as a narrator asserts over this prologue, "what goes around comes around." First, Xiaofeng's rapport with his rugged new squad leader, Guchun (Duan Yihong, White Deer Plain), quickly turns sour as the latter pointedly talks about his part in the failed investigations of those multiple murders at the country house. Then Zidao finds himself getting emotionally entangled with Guxia (Wang Luodan, Rise of the Legend), a passenger he saves from peril and who happens to be — surprise! — Guchun's younger sister.
Soon enough, Guchun begins to probe deeper into Xiaofeng's anxieties, his connections with Zidao and their links with that cold case from years past. Xiaofeng attempts desperately to distract Guchun's suspicions — including a ploy involving a gay Taiwanese fashion designer (Hong Kong actor Jackie Lui, The Mission) — but all is in vain, and Zidao eventually cracks in the face of Guxia's adoring, youthful exuberance.
The Dead End relies a bit too heavy on happenstance, with some of the threads — such as the underwritten relationship between Zidao and a two-dimensional Guxia — stretching logic and credibility. While subverting long-held visual and moral norms in mainland Chinese cinema, the film's final third — which incorporates a graphic portrayal of capital punishment and dialogue overtly spelling out the moral questions at play — pushes the film to the point of conventional melodrama.
The best thing in The Dead End is its intense character studies of unraveling men. Deng, Duan and Guo have delivered performances deserving of their Shanghai gong and more plaudits beyond, but their on-screen disquiet is only heightened by Luo Pan's handheld camerawork and Baoping's mise-en-scene. Here in the sunny seaside city of Xiamen - one of the first places to undergo economic reforms in China in the 1980s - only small-time criminality is present in the form of the odd street-corner porn peddler, illegal bookmakers, or useless thugs fumbling in their attempts to rob helpless cabbies. With stellar turns from his cast and his stylish handling of what could be seen as a Chinese equivalent of Crime and Punishment, Cao has succeeded in lessening the impact of a denouement which, somehow, hurtles towards that blind alley of morality-driven melodrama.