Village of No ReturnReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/08/17 02:41:26
SCREENED AT THE 2017 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: If "The Village of No Return" is meant as satire - an idea I am more amenable to now than I was walking out of it - then it's either the sort that plays much better to its home audience or which attempts to bury its true intentions under enough other material that they can easily be lost or distorted. After a few days considering it off and on, I'm coming around to liking Chen Yu-hsun's ambition and some of what he seems to be trying to say, although he often makes a cluttered mess of it.Though the film opens away from the village of the title, it gets there soon enough, as merchant "Big Pie" Chu (Ban Zan) arrives home with a secret mission from a nearby lord and rumors that there may be a railroad coming through. His beautiful wife Autumn (Shu Qi) is waiting, although it's not like she has a choice - she was a gift to him and has a shackle around her ankle after her previous attempts to escape and find her true love Dean Wang, who was supposed to return after a year making his fortune in the capital but has been gone three. Even more notable, though, is lay monk "Rainbow" Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), who carries with him a mysterious artifact - the "Worry Ridder" helmet, which can extract troublesome memories from one's head, expelling them as tiny cocoons. Which sounds nice, but before long he's used it to erase the memories of everyone in the village, telling them that he is chief, Autumn is his wife "First Flower", and their goal is to help him dig for a long-buried treasure. Autumn is not just a pretty face, though, and has an inkling that something isn't right even before Dean (Tony Yang Yo-ning) finally comes home.
Even before Rainbow shows up, there's a fair amount of misdirection going on - Big Pie is meant to provoke the dangerous Cloud Clan of assassins into an attack, giving the lord cover to intervene and be seen as a savior rather than an aggressor - although the film seems to forget about it for much of the running time in much the way that the brainwashed characters do. Throw in the fact that the assassins maintain their cover by effectively being the country's postal service, and the film is actually built on a very solid theme of how knowledge is power in a very real sense, and tyrants will re-write the actual facts of the situation to serve their own purposes (and, as a key scene or two implies, even a relatively benevolent leader may find it hard to resist that temptation). Chen and the production design team are also cute with how they use the Worry Ridder - it's a whimsical design that doesn't seem out of place in this sort of period comedy at all, but it has a user interface, and that doesn't seem like it's just an amusing anachronism but commentary on the present.
And yet, at the big moments, Chen has a hard time keeping this idea at the center. Though there's some leeway available from presenting the movie as a sort of fairy tale and thus metaphorical, The Village of No Return still soft-peddles the inherent horror of its premise - it's creepy as heck, enough that Chen has to try and walk back just how cavalierly Autumn has been forced to couple with with horrible men in the coda. Most of the time, the movie plays the situation for goofy comedy. Successfully in many cases - there's enjoyable goofiness in people suddenly acting different and there's a lot of good dumb-person humor among the brainwashed - but the story will stray far enough to make the middle seem neglected without giving the other material enough heft that it can become what's going on rather than a distraction from it.
And yet, for all that the movie is a mess, it often does wind up being a fair amount of fun. Shu Qi is as terrific as usual here, giving Autumn a sharp humanity that's more than just suffering with an especially pained look on her face as the audience first meets her but becoming a genuine delight as First Flower, balancing the horror of realizing that her bliss isn't real with curiosity and fascination in regards to the amazing artifact which created it. Autumn is the most consistently well-rounded character in a plot that reduces most of the others to dupes, but she's got good comic foils in Wang Qianyuan, whose Fortune Tien is in the position of evil mastermind without necessarily having the genius necessary, and Chang Hsiao-chuan as a sympathetic but kind of dim-witted neighbor.The film gets genuinely weird at enough points that it gets the audience to at least gape, even if the skin kites, sudden kung fu mastery, and a master assassin's difficulty adapting to a bicycle rather than a horse don't always hang together so well. The satire is arguably not far underneath that silliness, but it seems the film rarely digs that deep. It leaves a mess that winds up held together in large part because Shu Qi has the sort of star power that can make a movie watchable even when it stumbles around her, which in this case turns out to be the most valuable thing a Village can have.
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