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Two Tigers
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by Jay Seaver

"Fitting that it comes from a song that ends "how very strange"."
2 stars

Here's a fun thing: The Chinese nursery rhyme "Two Tigers" maps pretty much directly onto the traditional French song "Frère Jacques" that I presume many westerners still learn in elementary school, which means that the opening scene of this movie, where generally ominous music becomes and imposing version of the song, is still funny even if you don't know about it until the song becomes part of the story. It would be more impressive if this weren't the high point of the movie, sure, but sometimes you take what you can get.

That opening shot is fun in other ways; it's shot from the perspective of Yu Kai-Xuan (Qiao Shan), who is following another car, and his point of view shows the goofy cartoon ornaments on his dashboard, as well as all the junk piled on his messy passenger seat. Combine it with the music, and the idea that this goofball is about to kidnap wealthy businessman Zhang Cheng-Gong (Ge You) is clearly being presented as absurd, but it's where the movie's going, and this opening does a fairly delightful job of getting the audience there without having to do a bit where Yu is suddenly revealed as kind of a screw-up. It's there from the start, even if the movie does need this bit of competence to get things rolling.

After that, it becomes clear that Yu hasn't thought this through as well as he could - he's got a place to stash Zhang away (an abandoned public swimming pool), but hasn't done enough research to realize that Zhang has no friends or family to whom he should send a ransom demand. Heck, Zhang is insulted when Yu asks him for a mere million yuan ($142,200), and negotiates Yu up to two - although Yu will have to do him three favors in that case. Having already botched things up and shown himself to not really have the stomach for violence, Yu decides to go along with it.

Though I can't find any evidence of it having started that way, one doesn't have to squint very hard to see Two Tigers as a short film extended to a feature, or a feature that may work better as a short. It starts with a nifty set-up for a contained, focused story but stretches to the breaking point in order to make it to 93 minutes. Zhang's requests will eventually send Yu far enough afield that it becomes impossible to maintain the pretense that this is a kidnapping, and somewhere around the midway point, the whole thing breaks down and writer-director Lifei never manages to get much tension out of the way Zhang completely upsets the balance of power; it's become a different sort of story but still has passed the point where the audience buys it.

Part of it comes from how the two lead performances don't quite match the amount of importance the story gives them. Ge You spends too much time giving Zhang a good poker face and not enough time visibly reacting despite how the story winds up mining Zhang's life, and it ultimately makes Zhang into a version of Ebeneezer Scrooge who never actually directly confronts his ghosts, instead assigning them to a proxy. On the flip side, Qiao Shan turns in an engaging comic performance that stays charming and likable even when Yu is being pushed into a corner, but the film never actually gets to become about him even though he's ultimately supposed to learn from Zhang's semi-tragic example. It becomes a version of A Christmas Carol where the rich man is teaching the poor one that money can't buy happiness but without confronting how that is a pretty easy thing for a rich man to say.

Despite that, Lifei shows enough promise to keep the film interesting from moment to moment. A couple of Yu's early excursions at Zhang's behest feel stiff and rote, but it's worth noting that the sequence that causes the movie to head off the rails is, in fact, very funny, played with great comic timing by Ge, Qiao, and Pan Binlong and deserving to be in a movie where it made sense. And while the last act is kind of obvious in its themes of regret and in having a pristine pastoral setting contrast with the gloomy urban one that preceded it, between the aerial photography being so beautiful and Yan Ni giving a relaxed sort of guest performance as Yu's last guide, it may convince an audience to forgive Lifei and his film their ham-fistedness.

It's not quite enough to make up for all the mistakes that get made after a confident, intriguing opening, especially an ending that is as messy and scattered as the other end is pointed. It is just enough to make "Two Tigers" the sort of below-average movie that doesn't feel like a waste of time - it's got highlights and is short enough to make sure they aren't completely smothered. You take what you can get, even if you already knew two folk songs from different sides of the world have the same tune.

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originally posted: 12/02/19 06:37:33
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  29-Nov-2019 (PG)

Directed by
  Fei Li

Written by
  Fei Li

  You Ge
  Shan Qiao
  Wei Zhao
  Wei Fan
  Ni Yan
  Binlong Pan

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