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Road Not Taken, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not-quite-crime drama."
4 stars

"The Road Not Taken" is one of those indie movies that could get filled under "crime" even though it isn't, really, but there's enough crime in it that if you want to push it as something of interest to more than just art-house audiences, you can fit it. It's more a story of a loser who winds up in the middle of a bunch of criminals and kind of floats through that situation for a while, at least until the filmmaker wants to end things. It's pretty decent, as those things go, giving you the good naturalistic acting and peeks at people just getting by you might not find in the crowd-pleasers, especially from China.

It opens by introducing the audience to Yong (Wang Xuebing), who's trying to start an ostrich farm on the edge of the Gobi desert, but he's in hock to loan shark Brother Five (Wang Xuleng), including a mortgage on the apartment in Taibailiang where his ex-wife Yan has been living for the past two years. Fortunately, Five isn't here to collect; he's just dropping off a kid (Zhu Gengyou) he describes as a nephew, with the implication that if Yong watches him a couple of days, it'll be good for his debt. It should be simple, but hearing another voice in the background when he calls Yan sets Yong off, and he's immediately into his truck, looking to confront her.

This is an obviously bad decision from the get-go, and the first part of the movie requires getting past a lot of wondering why we're watching either of these idiots. Yong literally forgets he's got a kid with him less than five minutes after the boy's been dropped off, and while the kid certainly has reason to be sullen, silent, and uncooperative once the plot reveals itself, his actions seem so random and counterproductive, designed solely to get him and Yong into bigger holes, it's frustrating enough to make a viewer forget that he's a kid and isn't necessarily going to act sensibly even under the best of circumstances.

Things perk up a bit once Ma Yili enters the picture; her Mei is a truck driver, very much cognizant and aware of what is going on in the latest situation that Yong and the kid have blundered into, and by that point the audience is well past ready for some crap to be cut through. The truly refreshing part, though, is that she's not cutting through it for Yong's benefit or forming some sort of surrogate family with them right away - Mei has her own specific problems that don't dovetail neatly into the guys' troubles. Their stories intertwine, but Mei is not there to fix guys or be fixed by them. Still, her introduction seems to inspire director Tang Gaopeng and his co-writers to push for clear motivations and responses, even if there's still some hesitation.

Ma also gives one of the film's strongest and most forceful performances, making Mei's aggression the flip side of her being guarded, never really ceding ground even when she's warming up to the other characters. It's an interesting complement to what Wang Xuebing is doing as Yong - he spends much of the movie like he's playing a frantic comedy part and dialing it back fifty percent, a mix of attempted charm, obsequiousness, and frustration that normally gets played bigger and for laughs but which is only a little bit broader than everyday frustrations here. It's just grounded enough to look kind of petty from the start but still let the audience empathize with Yong a bit, and gives him some room to grow into being genuine later on. Zhu Gengyou is sneaky good as the kid, too - his frustratingly blank early performance reads as terror once the audience has been told a bit more, and he proves able to dip into a child's overwhelming emotions later.

Tang does seem to feel the need to embellish at certain points - the movie starts with a flash-forward that adds very little to the picture, especially considering that the film covers the same events when it catches up (and does so relatively quickly). There's also a post-credit sequence that wouldn't have fit into the movie but. It's of a piece with how, even once the filmmakers have decided to stop keeping things hidden, the story occasionally gets away from them a bit of isn't quite satisfying, as Yong comes to an important decision more by seeing himself boxed out than by having truly grown.

Despite those issues, Tang and his team prove to be strong storytellers. They find and make use of striking locations, and have an eye that's a bit more ambitious than just keeping the two people talking in frame. The film doesn't drag even when it's meandering a bit to set things up. Eventually, enough extra characters and story accrue to make it interesting, and there's some fun to seeing how it fits together by the end, when Tang shows enough chops for crime storytelling that I wouldn't be surprised to see him land something bigger and more commercial if that's the route he wants to go.

If not, he's still got a potentially bright future in the Chinese indie scene, although that will likely make his work harder to find than this one, which appeared with even less fanfare than Chinese films usually do in North America. It's worth seeking out, though, as good independent not-quite-crime regardless of origin.

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originally posted: 09/24/18 23:21:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Gaopeng Tang

Written by
  Zheqing Duan
  Gaopeng Tang
  Xiaojun Yue

  Xuebing Wang
  Gengyou Zhu
  Yili Ma

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