By Yun-hua Chen.
With its fair share of problems, Are You Lonesome Tonight attempts to be unpredictable…like a film which indulges itself in ambiance at the expense of narrative.”
Rarely do we see a Chinese noir thriller that is so invested in style and ambiance. Wen Shipei’s debut feature Are You Lonesome Tonight evokes the Golden Age of the Hong Kong cinema. It was internationally premiered as a Special Screening in Cannes’ official selection. Starting with a monologue about the monotonous life from a prison cell and ending with the release of the narrator in front of the prison gate, it follows the crime-and-punishment trajectory of an air-conditioning repairman Wang Xueming. In a rush to watch a film with his girlfriend, Wang hits someone with his van on a countryside road late at night and flees the scene. He is tormented by nightmares and repetitively replays the scene in his head, each time a slightly altered version. Through a chance encounter, he knows where the widow of the victim, Mrs. Liang, lives and goes to repair her air-conditioning, with the intention of confessing his crime to her. Their friendship evolves into somewhat flirtatious mutual dependence. Meanwhile, he becomes aware of a bag of stolen money hidden by Mr. Liang and gets dragged into the underworld and a cat-and-mouse chase. Filmed in Guangzhou during the summer, it is a tale of the past recounted by Wang and set in a tropical area, as indicated by the Chinese title; sweat and rain are indistinguishable, and humidity is turned into another character in the film.
Are You Lonesome Tonight is explicitly set in 1997, a significant year for the Cantonese speaking region, yet its significance and underlying ambiance remains implicit till the end. Keen on experimenting with cinematic time, it constantly jumps back and forth in time, sometimes rewinding back to an earlier moment and replaying it from another perspective. It thus joins the league of Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), both using chronologically disassembled fragments to portray the impact of a car accident, and at the same time, it adds an extra layer of indiscernibility on film reality. Nightmarish images and fantasy images are interwoven into the images of what really happened in a deliberately convoluted manner, to the extent that the narrator becomes unreliable and the storyline undetermined. After watching several renderings of the hit-and-run, we are left to wonder if Wang Xueming’s van really kills Mr. Liang, and if he disposes of the body next to the river, or if he simply flees? Wang’s subjective perspective is constantly challenged by other perspectives. The audience’s expectations are stirred up and then contradicted. In this labyrinth of narrative threads which are not necessarily true, Wen repeats and overexplains sometimes, while simply indulging himself in his own intoxicating images of noir at other times.
During the daytime, a retro color palette with different shades of yellow and green is used, and occasionally images are intentionally overexposed under the sun, in contrast to the use of red and green filters at night which is pitch dark. Almost like an homage to Hong Kong noir in the 90s, several fight scenes were shot with a panning camera in dark alleys and notes of old-fashioned levity are introduced – Mrs. Liang handed Wang Xueming a piece of frozen pork to ice a bruise on his face; a gun seller shoots himself while demonstrating his home-made four-chamber revolver – reminiscent of lowbrow Cantonese humor coined “mo lei tau”, a kind of nonsensical comedy.
The Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng, who is characterized by his pheromone-infused portraits of muscled tough guys such as Dante Lam’s The Rescue (2020) and Operation Mekong (2016), is a convincing blue-collar underdog here. With a much-hungered physique, dimmed gaze and a smashed nose, Eddie Peng embodies a marginalized man who is largely invisible in the society. Although the director refrains from showcasing Peng’s physical attraction and succeeds in reshaping his screen image, his combat skills do give him away. The performance of his co-star Sylvia Chang is equally subdued in her role as a frustrated middle-aged housewife who is disoriented after losing her son and husband. They make a fine pairing, with enough chemistry to arouse curiosity as well as enough subtlety to keep the borderline romance blurred.
With its fair share of problems, Are You Lonesome Tonight attempts to be unpredictable within the framework of something very predictable. It can feel like a film which indulges itself in ambiance at the expense of narrative, and which is more interested in its dreamy style than storytelling, but it is still a great attempt at a reinvention of a genre through a dedicated visual language.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.