Back to the Wharf
Dir. Xiaofeng Li (2020)
After accidentally killing a man and going on the run for 15 years, a young bricklayer returns home to deal with the death of his mother, his newly-powerful father, and his childhood friend who has become a very dangerous man.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Song Hao has lived a difficult life. Beaten down daily by his lower-middle class background and the well-to-do bullies in his hometown, the one thing he has going for him is his grades. Song is a straight-A student and the deserving recipient of his school’s direct admission to college. Unfortunately, Li Tang, his best friend who also happens to be the mayor’s son, receives the admission instead, explained away by his teacher by saying that Song can probably get in on his own and this will mean two kids get to go to school. Of course, Song can barely afford to get by, so college is now out of the question. He decides to go confront his friend, entering the wrong house and ending up in a confrontation with the house’s owner, Wan. He stabs Wan during a scuffle in which Song tries his best to explain his well-intentioned mistake, and things go from bad to worse when he is forced to flee to another province to avoid prosecution.
Meanwhile, Song’s family gets an upgrade. His dad becomes the mayor, getting himself a young wife and a new family to “start over” and have a son that could carry on the family line in good repute. When Song returns after the death of his mother, his father basically disowns him and tells him that he’s not allowed to live with him, offering their old, tiny apartment as a place for him to stay while he’s in town. Li Tang, his ex-best friend/dude who screwed him over, has become a wealthy land developer, the recipient of every nepotistic benefit that often comes from political families and corrupt regimes. Unfortunately, he also knows about what happened those 15 years ago, and he plans to use it to destroy Song and his father in his pursuit of ever more power.
This is the backdrop of this Chinese neo-noir, and it’s really not as complicated as it may seem while also being way more complicated than expected. While the story is gripping on its own, it is Xiaofeng Li’s direction that really shines in this film. The gorgeous cinematography is Chinatown by way of Michael Mann. The background is as rainy and depressing as Song’s life, a clear metaphor for his lifelong struggles, while accomplishing an effervescent flair with pops of cultural color that tease a promising resolution. It’s hard to find a path to that happy ending, however, as every positive pretense is blown away by the uncompromising bleakness of Song’s surroundings.
When Song finally must deal with his childhood friend, he finds out that Li Tang does, indeed, hold all of the cards. Let’s just say Li Tang’s clan ain’t nothing to fuck with (I’m so sorry.) While the story does perhaps get too drawn out at times, with a jammed-in love story that takes away a bit from the grit of the story’s more meaty elements, it’s still a tautly-paced (for the most part) crime drama with an awesome 80’s-inspired soundtrack that sounds like it came from the slower scenes of Top Gun and a neon aesthetic that hearkens back to Blade Runner.
As part of the new Chinese modern film movement, it is unimpeachable, a cold and grim take on family values and the sacrifices necessary for power that reprimands the dark side of capitalism while showing an unflinching portrait of the have-nots that illustrate why one would pursue those amoral avenues anyway. An indictment of modern China it is not, rather serving as a rebuke of the easy-to-find dark side of those cultural pursuits. It’s an important film wrapped in neo-noir packaging, an enjoyable watch that, while not in the slightest horror, still tells of the evils that men do in the pursuit of power and money. There aren’t a lot of blood and guts to be found, but you’ll feel just as dirty as you would have had you chosen to spend the evening wrapped in the embrace of Fincher or von Trier.
Who this movie is for: Asian film fans, Neo-noir lovers,
Bottom line: Back to the Wharf is one of only a handful of Chinese films that I’ve come across, but if it is as representative of China’s film revolution as other films, I’m going to have to dig in a little deeper. This is a fantastic film, and I highly recommend you check it out if you get the chance. I’ve been lucky enough to get screeners for several of Red Water Entertainment’s recent offerings, and they’ve yet to bring me anything short of a home run. It’s a captivating story, and it’s well worth a watch.