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Cock and Bull
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by Jay Seaver

"Clever crime, far from nonsense."
4 stars

I'm not one to demand perfect accuracy on a movie poster or video box, but the one for "Cock and Bull" that featured one of the characters brandishing a great big squirt gun in contrast to the more realistic weapons of the others really does the film a bit of a disservice. Not only does this never actually happen, but it gives the impression of a zanier, more absurd movie, and that sort of thing never appearing may disappoint those who might otherwise like this sort of twisty, darkly comedic crime story.

It starts out conventionally enough: Brother Cat, a gypsy cabbie in rural China, has been murdered, and widow Ma Xiao Lan has wasted no time in pointing a finger at Song Lao-er (Liu Ye), a mechanic who has fought with Cat on occasion, leading him to point out that last fight involved her affairs. Tagged as the prime suspect, Song hunts down Cat's distinctively-repaired motorcycle, a trail that will lead to Wang Youquan (Duan Bowen), a young man intending to move to Guangzhou with girlfriend Yang Shuha (Wang Ziwen), and Dong Xiaofeng (Zhang Yi), a small-time criminal working at the Victoria nightclub. With none exactly matter criminals or sleuths, untangling (or getting away with) this crime could be pretty tricky.

Writer/Director Cao Baopin chooses to complicate things a bit by breaking the film into chapters, switching the primary point of view as each chapter is named for a different crime-story archetype, and it's kind of a relief that he opts not to show off how cool and nonlinear his storytelling is: There's no hacky rewind effect, and despite there being four chapters, he only really jumps back and shows a large chunk of the story from a different character's perspective once; the other times he'll do a quick catch-up and mostly move forward from where he'd previously left off, just with the focus on someone else. It makes watching the movie less of an obvious game of spring connections and more of an actual mystery for much of the early going (and even when the audience knows what happened, the motive and how things will shake out holds its curiosity), although Cao is a bit clumsy with it at a couple of points, most notably when ending one act with a cliffhanger-like event that is immediately undercut.

Despite that, Cao shows a deft hand with tone as the film goes on. It's never quite the tongue-in-cheek comedy that the advertising and English-language title bring to mind, but there's a cynical sense of humor that comes into play as the film goes on - career criminal Feng is actually the funniest, and often most hapless, character, but Cao plays it so that any sympathy Feng may get for his slapstick antics and mounting frustration plays counter to any good results for other characters. Crime in this movie is not something that comes easily or naturally even to the likes of Feng; the whole film is premised on the idea that most people are sloppy outside of their comfort zone and that violence is exhausting, with the film's biggest fight featuring people flailing wildly at each other and favoring any part of their body that gets hit because that hurts, making for good physical comedy but also being well-observed. It's a condensed version of what Cao does throughout the film - as he reveals more about Cat's murder to make it a cruel and horrible act, the same people are often having something funny happen to them, and vice versa; the world contains both tragedy and comedy and it's impossible to separate them or truly say one dominates the other.

Most of the performances underline that, with Duan Bowen and Wang Ziwen landing closest to the center; Youquan and Shuha are sometimes kind of slow on the uptake but real enough in how they confront those around them that they don't seem entirely two dimensional. Zhang Yi gets to play Feng as more extreme, diving into the more broadly comedic aspects of his character to sell every wild take but holding on to enough self-righteous anger to keep him from being a punchline. Liu Ye often plays Song as an inverse - serious enough in his pride and obsession that he doesn't realize that it can make him funny - and that gives the audience a little room to wonder about Song. He could be driven to something later, and we're ready for someone else's POV to show us him possibly being complicit, even if Liu has established someone that we want to believe in because he seems to react as believably imperfectly to being unfairly advised as we would.

So, not the frantic farce one might have expected, but to be totally honest, I'm not sure how the super soaker would have fit into this movie anyway. There's a good crime story behind the fancy structure, and just enough swinging out of control to qualify as a good cock and bull story.

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originally posted: 09/21/16 13:24:02
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Directed by
  Baopin Cao

Written by
  Baopin Cao

  Ye Liu
  Yi Zhang
  Bowen Duan
  Ziwen Wang

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