REVIEW / DRAMA
THE WASTED TIMES (M18)
123 minutes/Opens tomorrow/3.5/5 stars
The story: Lu (Ge You) is an influential and ruthless mobster in 1930s Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese invasion. His Japanese brother-in-law Watabe (Tadanobu Asano) has lived in the city for years and is practically Shanghainese. The wife of Lu's boss is Xiaoliu (Zhang Ziyi), a woman prone to indiscreet affairs. Their lives intersect time and again as war upends the city.
The one word that best describes this film is Tarantino-esque.
Chinese writer-director Cheng Er (Lethal Hostage, 2012) is clearly a fan of American film-maker Quentin Tarantino's distinctive bravura style, particularly as seen in the Palme d'Or-winning non-linear black comedy crime flick, Pulp Fiction (1994).
The Wasted Times does not proceed linearly, instead it moves back and forth in time, changing viewers' understanding of characters and situations each time it does so.
Scenes that seem to make little sense the first time you watch them are repeated in a fuller context and are suddenly flooded with meaning and emotion.
While Tarantino has his characters riffing on pop culture, often in the most unlikely of situations, Cheng has two young men nonchalantly joshing about the younger guy's virginity in a car - before he unveils what it is exactly they are on their way to.
Perhaps an English-language film in this style would have seemed overly derivative. In a Chinese work, it still feels fresh and intriguing.
Moreover, Cheng is not paying homage blindly. His style is in service to the story, reflecting the topsy-turvy upheaval of life during wartime.
Like Tarantino, who revived the career of actor John Travolta with Pulp Fiction, Cheng also seems to have a way with actors - the ensemble cast here is top-notch, from the quietly menacing Ge You to the vivacious Zhang Ziyi to Tadanobu Asano, whose surface calm belies a dark heart.
Even the smaller roles make their mark, including Yan Ni as the formidable housekeeper Wang Ma and Du Jiang, who brings a mix of naivete and viciousness to his part as a junior henchman.
This movie is no wasted effort.