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Muhou Wanjia (A or B)
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by Jay Seaver

"Not really a great choice."
2 stars

"A or B" starts out as a slick-looking thriller based upon a decent enough concept, but it's not long before the filmmakers run up against the limits on what you can do with a guy locked in a room, tormented by an unseen abductor. It's a classic place to start even if it probably can't be where a movie ends, so a filmmaker has to find a better place for things to lead than Perry Ren Pengyuan does here.

He opens with three men in a sauna, where a folk tale soon leads to talk of an investment firm led by Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) and Tan Wanyuan (Wang Yanhui) inflating the value of a tech company that a government-owned pharma company run by LIu Wenshi (Yu Hewei) will later purchase, with the group splitting the proceeds - and then another businessman, Zeng Guangwen (Simon Yam), walking off the side of a building. Months later, as their plan is coming to fruition, Zhong's wife Wei Simeng (Wang Likun) seems fed up with his underhanded ways and says she plans to ask for a divorce. Zhong may be carrying on an affair with gold trader Zhuang Yi (Zhu Zhu), but he's still upset at the attention paid Simeng by his old friend and colleague Zhu Nan (Zhao Da). He'll have bigger problems the next day, though, when he wakes up sealed in his bedroom, with a voice over a walkie-talkie saying that he'll be given a simple "A or B" choice as the market opens for the next five days - for instance, "A) announce your divorce from Simeng or B) confess to tax evasion" - and if he refuses to choose, both will happen. And you'd better believe every enemy he's made is going to try and take advantage of these choices.

So long as Ren keeps things relatively tangible, with extramarital affairs, a rival realizing that the mastermind behind all this is getting the other guy in the room to betray him live on the phone, and Xioanian proving more resourceful than you might expect for a white-collar criminal, A or B works as a solid little thriller. Heck, it seems like he lets the audience know that Zhuang Yi invests in gold for the specific aim of giving everybody something physical to move around rather than the boring scenes of people intercepting Swiss bank account numbers. There's a ton of fun to be had watching Xiaonian trying to MacGyver his way out of the room, or noting who is in the room when the mysterious scrambled voice is talking to. It's not a bad shell game, at least to start.

Unfortunately, the film can't escape that it's built on a foundation of financial crimes, and Ren doesn't always have a great idea of what to include and what to leave out. There's a lot of vague references to exactly what went down between Zhong, Tang, and Zeng in the past and an attempt infuse Xiaonan with a bit of unearned sympathy by little more than having him be married to a good woman. Its last act is less clever misdirection and backstory than needless complication, and soon it's just twist after twist that doesn't mean much, compounded by the last act being as much market trickery as real danger. Of course, that's a problem throughout; its anti-hero is a corporate swindler, and the film ultimately winds up treating that as a game than having real outrage, talking about learning lessons but still trying to keep the money. It culminates in a sequence of events that is not only absurd, but requires a lot of work during the end credits to let the Chinese censors know that everyone still alive is getting precisely what he or she deserves.

Simeng may at times seem like an easy way to try and get the audience on Xiaonian's side, but there's no denying that there's a likable chemistry between Wang Likun and Xu Zheng. It's genuine and believable enough to convince the audience that maybe Xiaonian has a conscience after all, and Xu does determination nicely as Xiaonian tries to escape his prison. Wang Yanhui, Zhu Zhu, and Zhao Da play entertainingly different takes on greedy, ambitious capitalists, and Duan Bowen an enjoyable counterpart as the friendly bystander who might be Xiaonan's best hope.

That's not a bad set of ingredients, but Ren's got a bad habit of making his movie dumber at the point when it really needs to become clever. His movie fiddles around with details and starts being silly when it needs to have conviction and intensity, and it's just not clever enough to get by that way.

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originally posted: 05/07/18 12:01:33
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  04-May-2018 (12A)


Directed by
  Perry Ren

Written by
  Perry Ren

  Zheng Xu
  Likun Wang
  Bowen Duan
  Yanhui Wang
  Da Zhao
  Zhu Zhu

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