Spare, dark and gritty to a degree rare in Chinese cinema, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is a thoroughly engrossing film noir about guilt and a resolve to somehow make things right.
Eddie Peng of “The Great Wall” and “Love after Love” stars as Xue-Ming Wang, a silent, stoic inmate when we meet him. He narrates his “how I got here” (in Mandarin with English subtitles) story in classic noir style — doing it, he says, to remember because prison is “a process of forgetting.”
Outside, he was a working class Wang, a poker-faced HVAC repairman with a factory worker girlfriend (Peiyao Jiang) and a two pack a day habit. One night years before, after working late, he drove home through the undeveloped outskirts of Yuxien, let himself get distracted and ran over a man.
That’s his crime, we come to discover. He wanted to leave, but came back and dragged the body into the weeds. The ways this eats at him aren’t obvious. But when he sees the victim’s widow (Sylvia Chang) giving out fliers, he shuts down the girlfriend and takes on his quest. He will stalk, inveigle himself into Mrs. Liang’s life, fixing her AC, lightly questioning her about her missing husband, her search for answers and closure. He’ll try to tell her what happened. He’ll try to turn himself in at a crowded, noisy police station.
Mostly, he’ll just be “around,” when he isn’t taking details from her and setting out to find out more about the dead man’s life.
Remembering all this from prison, he knows and we’ll find out the First Rule of a Film Noir mystery thriller. Nothing is as it first seems.
Director and co-writer Shipei Wen’s debut feature reveals this Columbia U. film school grad has a patient way of giving away his story’s secrets. Scenes are repeated, bringing new information, new details for us to consider into the story.
Our opinion of our anti-hero changes and we see him cower from responsibility, interfere with and even heroically attempt to intervene in Mrs. Liang’s plight. Wang isn’t shy about diving into a brawl. He even hurls himself into a random gang fight on a walk home. No, he doesn’t have “particular skills” in this regard. But guilt is eating at him and making him reckless.
The presence of a dogged Yuexin police detective (Yanhei Wang) tips us that this won’t just be a story about how Wang was captured. There’s more going on that the storyteller is withholding, layers that he’ll peel off for us as the mystery deepens even if the crime isn’t much that would last past one evening TV news cycle.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” takes its title from the 1950s tune, covered (in English) by a Chinese recording artist, a blind bar band singer and others during the course of the film. It’s one of the most evocative ballads in the Elvis repertoire and reinforces the tone and the solitary nature of Wang’s quest, and his life in prison.
Is the fictional city’s name symbolic, too? This is what turns up when you Google it.
Peng, more experienced than he looks here, makes a rugged, easily-underestimated anti-hero, a young man heedless of his own safety often as not and more cunning than you’d think. Chang gives us a widow conflicted about her loss, guilt-stricken in her own way and naive enough to not make all the connections and sense danger in this guarded young stranger who has entered her life.
Wen’s film shows us an underworld where the big impersonal State may get its man, but where crimes, by and large, go unpunished. Gangs, loan sharks, armed thugs and back alley gun dealers co-exist and cops, dogged or not, are taking their lives into their own hands when they push too hard.
This quietly riveting Cannes Golden Camera Award (Best First Feature) nominee introduces a filmmaker with a great eye and almost serene patience, and an early mastery of this genre should he choose to make it his specialty.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Eddie Peng, Sylvia Chang, Peiyao Jiang and Yanhei Wang.
Credits: Directed by Shipei Wen, scripted by Binghao Zhao, Yinou Wang and Shipei Wen. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:35