Movie Review: Fate and Chinese Socialism intervene when he goes “Back to the Wharf”

You don’t have to look hard to see the criticisms of “The Way Things Work in China” tucked into the somber, slow-burn thriller “Back to the Wharf.” It’s in the sealed fate of the protagonists, the way “some pigs are more equal than others” in this “Animal Farm” and in the closing credits, which tidy the story up in a People’s Republic-Approved coda.

It’s about influence, future prospects and a chain reaction tragedy that dominates the life of our meek and smart but downtrodden protagonist.

Zhang Yu plays Song Hao, a top one percent of his class high-schooler who survives bullying thanks to his friendship with the cocky punk son of the deputy mayor in the small city of Xiyuan. Li Pang’s long been “a pal,” or at least a guy who gets his jollies bullying bullies.

Until that day that the principal informs Song Hao that his great grades and promised college placement were going to another. Li Pang (Hong-Chi Lee) will have the wide-open future, influence and affluence that a college education would promise.

In a “one child” China, where family advancement is traced in generations, Li Pang has been designated a winner. Song Hao’s father (Wang Yanhui) gets this, and starts to complain. Song Hao tries to confront Li Pang and get him to admit this betrayal to his face.

But the kid storms into the wrong house, is attacked by the drunken owner, and stabs him in a fight. Song Hao’s dad finds the man, and does the calculus as he pretends to listen to the bleeding man’s pleas to call an ambulance. Dad’s promotion is on the line. His future and his family line’s Master Plan is endangered. He finishes the bleeding Wan off and lets his son think it was all his fault.

The kid flees town and takes a menial job with a stone cutting and carving factory far away. Only when Song Hao’s mother dies does he return. He was never fingered for the crime, and now he learns that the daughter of the dead man grew up an orphan who now hangs on to a derelict house coveted by developers. His own father took his promotion and dumped his mother to take a second shot at having a family and producing a “successful” heir.

And Li Pang? Once a punk, always a punk. He’s a well-connected college-educated high roller who works for the development corporation that wants that orphan teen’s (Enxi Deng) house, by hook or by crook.

What can passive, downtrodden Song Hao do about any of this?

The fatalism that hangs over Li Xiaofeng’s film is personified by Yu’s unsmiling, dispassionate and expressionless performance. That cute, pushy classmate who was not one of their school’s intellectual “elite” was destined to become a toll-taker. And by God, she will have this eligible, mopey bachelor who has returned for his mother’s funeral.

“It was meant to be,” she crows (in Chinese with English subtitles). “I’m single TOO!”

Song Hao tries to ignore her and gets downright rude. It doesn’t work. Meanwhile, he’s trying to do right by the teen whose father he accidentally killed.

I like the script’s sad cause and effect throughline, all of it started when some well-placed mediocrity is promoted, upsetting what Americans would call “the meritocracy.” Song Hao may protest that it’s “Not fair,” but everyone from the principal who puts his finger on the scales to the fathers of both boys involved is expected to shrug off injustices and accept their fates.

The film’s commentary on this is underscored by the setting for the finale, a vast collection of rusting, no longer useful fishing boats which China is too busy to renovate or recycle. The unfeeling behemoth, a State which teaches its populace to value calm and “order” above all, is simply too big and too busy to bother with individual rights or industries that change, chewing up the people who made their livelihoods in them.

“You can’t fight them,” is Song Hao’s father’s advice. His second family has a Western (blonde) tutor, teaching them English so they can emigrate. That’s his solution.

“Back to the Wharf” has the look and tone of a film noir, with a mousy anti-hero at its center, and not a decisive man of action.

The picture is a very slow starter, and even when the script begins to jolt, shock and make us fear our protagonist is merely fodder for the machine, even as it teases us with the idea that a man can only take so much, we know better than to get our hopes up too much.

It’s China, Jake.

Rating: unrated, violence, sex

Cast: Zhang Yu, Song Jia, Wang Yanhui, Hong-Chi Lee and Enxi Deng

Credits: Directed by Li Xiaofeng, scripted by Xin Yu and Li Xiaofeng. A Red Waters release.

Running time: 1:55

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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