Wen Shipei’s first feature is a twisty and sophisticated debut whose best trick of misdirection is convincing us we’re watching a different kind of movie.
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By Austin Considine
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If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that the cover-up is worse than the crime. For instance, if you accidentally hit someone with your van, don’t go back to scene, roll the body into a ditch, then drive away, as the protagonist of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” does. Things will not go the way you hoped.
We know this, but if the premise of “Lonesome” feels a little familiar, the director Wen Shipei still manages to keep us guessing. Part exploration of the ravages of guilt, part homage to the stylish Hong Kong gangster flicks of the 1990s, “Lonesome” (written by Wen with Noé Dodson, Wang Yinuo and Zhao Binghao) wears its influences on its sleeve but is a stylish and sophisticated debut feature.
An opening image of a bull escaping captivity seems at first to indicate that we have entered a world of easy symbolism. There we meet a prisoner named Xueming (Eddie Peng), who narrates a story of when he, a former air-conditioning repairman, committed a hit-and-run in 1997. As fate appears to have it, his victim was married to a customer (Sylvia Chang), who becomes an unlikely friend. And now we seem also to have entered a world of easy coincidence, or at least classical tragedy.
Wen has great talent, however, for misdirection — not only with the plot, though he does that, too (not always as successfully; sometimes clever is just confusing). More important, he has fooled us about what kind of movie we’re watching. It is one in which the characters, even the bull, are subject not to the whims of gods and metaphors but to their own compulsions and machinations. Every action has its consequence, every phenomenon its cause.
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Not rated. In Chinese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. Rent or buy on most major platforms.
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