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Worth A Look: 14.29%
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Pretty Bad85.71%
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1 review, 1 rating

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Wasted Times, The
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't quite make good on its title, but..."
2 stars

Even if it hadn’t played in basically unaltered form in front of every Chinese movie released in North America for about a year and a half, the preview for Cheng Er’s "The Wasted Times" would have been a perfect parody of Chinese art-house movies, or at least their trailers: Beautifully composed images cut together to suggest mystery and mood rather than a specific story, a meticulously recreated historical setting, self-referential meta-commentary, and a conscious effort to include the only two English-language lines in the film, despite one being an ethnic slur. Whether intended ironically or not, those two minutes were kind of perfect in a way that the actual two-hour film can’t match.

The film opens with text describing a Japanese man who assimilated to life in occupied Shanghai completely, coming across as more “Shanghainese” than some of the natives. That description fits Watabe (Tadanobu Asano) to a T; though he runs a sushi restaurant, he dresses in Chinese clothing, speaks the local dialect, is married to a Chinese woman, has two Chinese children, and professes more loyalty to his adopted city than his native land. He’s good friends with his brother-in-law Mister Lu (Ge You), himself the sort of gangster who sees his job as making sure that everything moves smoothly in the community as much as making money for himself. Part of that, historically, has been getting the boss’s new, younger, wife (Zhang Ziyi) a role in an upcoming movie, even if that displaces a more talented actress Xiao Wu (Yuan Quan). But while 1937’s Battle of Shanghai is still some months in the future, Japan’s desire to have Lu and his partners front a Japanese bank presents a test for everyone.

Much of that action takes place in the first segment or two of a film that jumps around in time, with the English subtitles, at least, taking the curious route of mentioning the proximity of the action to events in the Sino-Japanese War even though Cheng seldom shows those landmarks directly. The Wasted Times covers roughly thirteen years or so in total, though it jumps back and forth, and the fractured narrative hurts it: The climactic moment comes early, and the switching time period and perspective is seldom done in a way that creates a particularly intriguing contrast, and dramatically taking a character off the board for an equally dramatic later return means little if they’re present in an intervening sequence set years earlier. Cheng’s decisions on what to include often seem haphazard, built around the necessity of getting the whole plot in but leaving out emotional moments and in one case sticking around a time and place barely long enough for the subtitled establishing shot.

Putting the film together this way has the effect of it often seeming little more than cruel, like the only thing Cheng made sure to include was when a character died; on a couple of occasions it seems as though someone has been inserted into a situation entirely so that he or she can be killed off. The machinations that the characters are involved in will surely seem less oblique to the film’s primary audience than foreigners such as myself, but I suspect even they will grow frustrated by how thinly sketched certain characters are, or how the hints of a story or two interesting enough to be the whole movie get buried, taking up just enough time to justify another character getting shot dead.

I idly wonder if the long delay in this getting released is Cheng trying to cut a three-hour long movie by a third or fighting a studio over their notes to make it more commercial; otherwise, it seems like an awfully high-end movie to be stuck opening against The Great Wall in China and the latest Star Wars movie in the rest of the world. It looks gorgeous, after all, full of striking images on which the camera is often given a chance to linger, with the filmmakers building a version of Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s that has a great deal of detail but seldom seems indulgently elaborate. Cheng often keeps these sets relatively empty, without extras who wouldn’t impact the action, seldom as crowded as when they are full of corpses.

That often gives the cast some interesting room to work - despite generally being shown in a formal, static frame without a whole lot of extra things to do to elaborate on the motivations that the script gives them, Ge You and Tadanobu Asano make the most of their roles. Both Lu and Watabe are intelligent and dedicated, and the actors are skilled at showing restraint without seeming to tug against something holding them back, at peace with the opposing motivations that each feels (it is, however, a bit ironic that the Mandarin dialogue of Asano’s fully-assimilated Watabe is occasionally very obviously dubbed). GIllian Chung and Zhang Ziyi both feel like they’ve had their parts cut down, which is too bad; they provide entertaining contrasts in terms of the types of cunning that women of the time must use to get ahead.

The more I think of "The Wasted Times", the more I feel certain that it was at some point a bloated but emotional epic that was cut as much as it could be, and that it’s sad that its present form invites one to use its English-language title for cruel jokes. But, then, maybe that makes the preview an even better pastiche of art-house movies - you often don’t wind up with the full potential of what the previews promised when the wait is so long.

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originally posted: 12/21/16 11:49:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/30/17 Yujan Asano doesn't speak Mandarin in the film. He speaks Shanghainese. 4 stars
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  16-Dec-2016 (NR)


  16-Dec-2016 (MA)

Directed by
  Er Cheng

Written by
  Er Cheng

  You Ge
  Ziyi Zhang
  Tadanobu Asano
  Gillian Chung
  Wallace Chung
  Chun Du

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