Ping guo (2007)


(director/writer: Li Yu; screenwriter: Li Fang; cinematographer: Yu Wang; editor: Jian Zeng; music: Payman Yazdanian; cast: Tony Leung Ka Fai (Mr. Lin), Fan Bingbing (Ping-guo), Tong Da Wei (An-kun), Elaine Jin (Mrs. Lin), Zeng Mei Hui Zi (Xiao-mei); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Li Fang; Red Envelope Entertainment/New Yorker Films; 2007-China-in Mandarin with English subtitles)
“A monotonous sordid melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Female director Li Yu’s (“Fish and Elephant”/”Dam Street”) third film is a monotonous sordid melodrama about a blood money deal between two Beijing couples having a ménage-a-quatre while living in a city where money talks and shady deals are the norm. The Chinese capital is seen as a glimmering place of modern hi-rise buildings, and its inhabitants who come from all over China as obsessed over material wealth.

Lin Dong (Tony Leung Ka-fai, noted Hong Kong actor) is a nouveau-riche entrepreneur, driving a Mercedes Benz, who hails from the southern province of Guangdong. He operates the sleazy Golden Basin Foot Massage Parlor, caring little about the workers but a lot about pleasing his businessmen customers even if they take advantage of the girls to try and feel them up. Wang-mei (Elaine Jin, noted Taiwan actress) is his beauty-parlor owner wife of 16 years, who is infertile and knows that her hedonist hubby is unfaithful but chooses to do nothing.

An-kun (Tong Da Wei) is a window-washer for skyscrapers and lives with his pretty wife Ping-guo (Fan Bingbing) in a small bare Beijing apartment, as they barely scrape by on their meager wages. She came with her best friend Xiaomei (Zeng Meihuizi) to the big city from a small northeastern town to get money and ended up working with her girlfriend as masseuses at the Golden Basin Foot Massage Palace.

Ping-guo gets drunk and passes out at an office party, when she comes to she’s on the boss’s bed and he’s on top of her banging away while outside (if you can believe!) her hubby is in a harness squeegeeing and witnesses the assault. The rape scene and confrontation to follow are clumsily executed, and its intent at absurdist comedy makes the tragedy unintentionally funny (a big turn off).

When Kun tries to shake down both Dong and Dong’s wife for money, she offers instead her body for revenge and he takes the offer. Then he has rough rough sex with his wife to relieve his shame and anger. When Ping-guo becomes pregnant, the two couples sign a business contract whereby Dong will adopt the child and the needy couple will be handsomely rewarded. The deal also stipulates that Mei will get half her hubby’s assets if he’s caught cheating again.

When Ping-guo gives birth to a girl, her maternal instincts take over and she can’t give up the child despite the money offered and the uncertainty of who is the father.

The film ran into censorship problems in mainland China over the many sex scenes (none with frontal nudity), nor did the touchy subject matter of selling babies please the government officials. But in America, it only seems interesting to see a burgeoning Beijing; the schematic story never registers here as it might in China and despite the talented cast, who do their best to avoid their characters becoming caricatures, the film seems lost in its inability to make its struggling unpolished city immigrants be involved in anything but a muddled affair while the filmmaker’s bigger aim is to descry the influence by Western-style capitalism on a Beijing in transition.