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My Dear Liar
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by Jay Seaver

"Not well-planned."
2 stars

"My Dear Liar" involves a fairly dumb master plan and I don't think the people making this movie thought it through much better than its scheming characters did. It's the sort of film that makes murder just something that happens during insurance fraud and never lets itself enjoy the pleasures of a good con, always far too well aware that what these characters are doing is deceptive and/or illegal, so much so that it can't separate the thrill of a small-time grift with the horror of a large one. And if that's the case, why bother?

As it opens, longtime friends Zhong Zenjiang (Zhang Zixian) and Wu Hai ("Da Peng" Dong Chengpeng) are both feeling a monetary squeeze and resorting to scams, although the scales are different: Zhong and his boss have been embezzling money from their real estate firm and feel investigators closing in, while perpetually-broke "Da Hai" is hustling as a designated-driver-for-hire at night after managing an internet café to pay for his son Yoyo's asthma medicine. He'd love to move into one of the apartments Zhong's firm is developing in a nice, pollution-free area, and Zhong says he'll transfer one if Da Hai carries out his plan - marry camgirl Yue Miaomiao (Ada Liu Yan), take out a large insurance policy, and then collect when she accidentally drowns. This plan, of course, leaves out a lot of details about how to get Miaomiao into position, even before considering that Miaomiao may be a little more than her "Foxy Fairy" character.

I expected more of a comedy based on the previous films from the people involved, true, but even considering that this is a more serious movie than that, it feels lacking. It starts with Zhong able to consider murder as part of an insurance scam and Da Hai more than a bit uncomfortable with the idea, but never does much with just how mismatched they are. There are numerous scenes highlighting the toxicity of this friendship, but there's not enough of Zhong overall or the two of them outside this scheme to see why Da Hai would do this for him. Maybe it's something cultural that I as an outsider wouldn't understand, but even in that case, it seems like it could use some detail - there's a chance to twist the knife hard on how decent air quality is being sold as a luxury good, or how the money Zhong is spending on this scheme contrasts with how broke Da Hai is.

Similarly, filmmaker Shen Ao often doesn't seem to know what to do with Miaomiao as the movie goes on. There's a line early on about how Zhong sees her as a sort of fraud and a leech, which is part of how he justifies murdering her to Da Hai, but Shen barely takes advantage of this to make her savvier than the guys expect despite her seemingly airheaded, materialistic presentation. Instead, there's one scene in the middle of the movie that confronts her with how bad she has been and lets her transition to a more easily sympathetic version of the character that one can more readily see Da Hai falling for. It's flagrantly transparent, especially since Liu Yan seems perfectly capable of handling the contradictions and nuances in her character without having this sort of redirection.

The cast is generally good all around, even if their material isn't quite so good as they are. The film has moments that are tremendously impressive, like an early chase as Da Hai tries to retrieve Yoyo's medicine from a restaurant where he's been swiping from the buffet, when it feels nimble and has Da Hai's personality reflected in the way he goes about his business. Shen handles those bits of movement and the like with skill, enough that when the characters talk about a scheme, there's anticipation in how it may play out, right down to the ultimate attempt to knock Miaomiao off. The moments when the film shows some teeth - Zhong showing a reckless, sadistic side, or the commodification of just breathing - are good enough to keep reignite one's interest, for a time.

It seldom lasts. The characters never really shift position from where they start, and the ending therefore seems inevitable on top of heavy-handed. The end titles seem to quantify guilt in too pat a fashion, and middle steps that seem like they should be a big deal are glossed over. It's a film that should be much sharper or more freewheeling than it ever is, to the point where one wonders why Shen would tell this story if only to tell such a muted take on it.

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originally posted: 11/12/19 15:00:26
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  08-Nov-2019 (15)

  08-Nov-2019 (M)

Directed by
  Shen Ao

Written by
  Shen Ao
  Luyang Xu
  Yanqiu Wang

  Chengpeng Dong
  Yan Liu
  Zixian Zhang

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