The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here
When one covers the art of a culture that is not their own, there is always the risk of things getting lost in translation; some larger context that you, as an outsider, might very well be missing.
But rarely has simple human activity felt so absolutely alien as the opening few minutes of Manchurian Tiger, a movie I can most easily describe as a portrait of the tragicomic lives of a bunch of absurdly stoic people who chew very loudly and rarely know what to do with their hands.
If you can’t tell whether this prescribes a positive review or not, I can’t help you there; I’m hoping to figure that out by the time I’m done writing.
The film opens with Dong Xu, behind the wheel of a bulldozer, sucking the juice from a frozen fruit with a straw. He appears to be rear ended by another machine, which he responds to by getting out, greeting the driver and engaging in some kind of obscure game that involves spitting out snack seeds. Or something.
Mere moments later, he is back behind the wheel of his vehicle, taking a “soda break” with his mistress, whose mutual affection unfolds as a series of playful headbutts. When he (somewhat indirectly) informs her that their affair has to end because all he has left in his life is his marriage, she headbutts him once more (this time hard enough to cause him actual pain) and informs him that “Heartbreak is a waste of time”
And all of this is presented by director Geng Jun with a sort of drifting, hazy affectlessness that practically dares the viewer to make heads or tails of it at first glance.
It’s a tone and a style that one will either tune into fairly quickly or bounce off of completely; if you’re not adjusted ten minutes in, this one is not going to be for you, because it most definitely does not stray from its own wayward path.
Dong Xu is one of two main protagonists; the other is Mr. Ma, a struggling businessman who buys Dong Xu’s beloved dog, sold at the request of his very pregnant wife. Ma is… lets say, a less than responsible pet owner, and as a result of actions he takes, he earns the wrath of Dong Xu. And however impotent that wrath may actually be in practice, it’s just one more strike in the life of man with little left to live for; Dong Xu would be his worst enemy, if it weren’t for himself.
While I’m dancing around what Mr. Ma actually does, it’s safe to say that it’s an act a large number of viewers will find absolutely horrifying, and which, for them, might make him out to be the villain of the piece.
But Manchurian Tiger is not so much a story about good and evil, as it is a story about winners and losers.
Albeit, one where the winners have better things to do than actually show up.
It should be pointed out that this inciting incident takes place nearly an hour into the movie, which leads us to the films fatal flaw: it is entirely too long, and entirely too one-note for what it’s trying to do.
If you’re on the wavelength of the film, there are plenty of laugh out loud funny, and entertainingly odd throwaway moments. But between those moments is a lot of dead air, a lot of moments where where monotone actors are just non-reacting to things.
And a lot of very loud chewing foley work.
As in, loud enough that the sound designer (Lau Kin) is credited before the editor (Hoping Chen) and loud enough that they might want to tag it with a trigger warning for sufferers of misophonia.
But I digress.
My original point being… two hours is kind of a big ask for this sort of thing.
And yet, its impossible to dismiss the movie as it exists. It’s perhaps far too indulgent in the atmosphere of resignation and futility that permeates every single moment. But it’s also a unique, singular experience, with some genuinely hilarious moments and a refreshing ambivalence towards making moral judgments on its characters. When it works, it rides a precious line between laughing at the characters and respecting them for their perseverance in the face of an utterly indifferent society…
…even if that perseverance is more rooted in sheer inertia than anything else.
Not sure I get the significance of the title, though. As metaphors go, that one landed way past my head.
The 20th annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15th to July 31st.