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by Jay Seaver

"Hey, China, the bar for time-traveling by driving very fast is MUCH higher!"
3 stars

The credits for "Duckweed" include thanks for the”wisdom” of James Cameron’s "The Terminator", Jeannot Szwarc’s "Somewhere in Time", and Robert Zemeckis’s "Back to the Future", and though I haven’t seen the second, I wonder if seeing wisdom as the take-away from the other two is what makes Han Han’s time travel fantasy seem so bland and unambitious.

It’s a little surprising, given how popular nostalgia pictures have been in China over the last few years, that there haven’t been more time travel fantasies made recently, although this one is kind of weird in how it jumps the gun: It opens in a 2022 that does not appear particularly futuristic, showing famous rally car driver “Lang” Xu Tailang (Deng Chao) winning a race and then calling out the father who didn’t believe in him. He then takes the father on a drive, to show him what he does, only to get hit by a train, have his entire life flash before his eyes, and then wake up in 1998, where father Zhangtai (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) runs a video store and karaoke bar, fights against a rival “gangster” who is barely bigger-time than he is (Zhang Ben-yu), though his gang is basically unemployed computer programmer Ma (Dong Zi-jian), dim bulb Liu Yi (Zack Gao), and now Lang. Oh, and he seems to be about to marry Hua (Zanilia Zhao Li-ying), which is not the name of the mother that the born-in-1999 Lang never met.

Zemeckis and Cameron took the potential paradoxes that time travel introduced and built both odd families and stories that worked intuitively despite their strangely circular construction, but Han seems so uninterested in playing with the timeline that one almost has to wonder why he made Lang come from the future in the first place; he seems only sporadically interested in ensuring his own birth, and what jokes there are about him being from the future are utterly perfunctory and never actually lead to anything. The parts of the plot that actually involve him encountering his own past are resolved in the most anti-climactic way possible, even when certain revelations would seem to raise the stakes, give Lang a new mission, or even make him ponder about whether the events he feels held him back have actually made him who he is.

Take that hook out, and what’s left is mostly a fairly cheerful comedy, looking back at 1998 as a better world where people weren’t tied to their phones and when even the bad guys weren’t so bad. The idea Han spends most of the movie running with is small-town guys who may have modeled themselves on the cool gangsters they see in Hong Kong crime movies but are too fundamentally good-natured to do anything really bad - even Zhangtai’s rival sort of stumbles along and seems flummoxed when he might actually have to use violence. The cast is also all on the same wavelength, from Deng Chao making asides to the audience that don’t feel forced as Lang to Zack Gao’s delightfully dim but cheery Liu Yi. Dong Zi-jian functions as a fine secret weapon in his scenes as Ma, and it’s too bad Zanilia Zhao doesn’t get the same chance as Hua often enough, because she’s quite funny when given actual jokes. Eddie Peng mostly hits the right goofy note as Zhangtai, although he’s a bit undercut by seeming to be an entirely separate character in the 2022 framing sequence. That he’s stuck in old-age makeup that has to play against how he and Deng are folks in their mid-to-late thirties playing 23-year-olds doesn’t help there.

Casting folks that age backs Han into a corner, and it’s not the only time that bad planning seems to hurt him. For example, the driving bits are pretty great, but he never figures out how to make them an actual part of the movie; the big scene toward the end where Lang has to get somewhere fast makes no sense at all. It’s not quite so central to the movie as the time travel, but it’s downplayed the same way. Similarly, it makes a certain amount of sense to have Lang, Zhangtai, and the rest actually have to come face to face with an actual dangerous gangster (from Hong Kong, of course, because such folks couldn’t find root in the mainland), but it sticks a violent segment into the last act that explains certain later absences but doesn’t gel with the rest of the movie.

There’s an argument to be made that Han building the movie this way, with Lang dropping into and out of the past and seeing his elders in contradictory situations is what makes this movie Chinese compared to its American inspirations; it venerates rather than inviting interference. I find it a frustrating direction to go with this story, eventually making something potentially funny and intriguing far too respectful.

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originally posted: 02/12/17 16:33:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Han Han

Written by
  Han Han

  Chao Deng
  Eddie Peng
  Liying Zhao
  Zijian Dong
  Shih-Chieh Chin

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