Social commentary with visual flair

Feng Xiaogang won the Golden Horse Award for Best Actor last November for his role in Mr Six.
Feng Xiaogang won the Golden Horse Award for Best Actor last November for his role in Mr Six.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

THE STORY: Mr Six (Feng Xiaogang), a legend among the old-timersof Beijing's hutongs, is highly respected. His relationship with his son Xiaobo (Li Yifeng) is in shreds, though. But when Xiaobo is held hostage by rich, spoilt brat Xiaofei (Kris Wu) for scratching his car, his father pledges to raise the sum required for his release.

For his tremendous turn as the title character, Feng Xiaogang deservedly won the Golden Horse Award for Best Actor last November. He creates an indelible figure, a man of honour and principles who is an anachronism in these materialistic, might-is-right times. As someone remarks in the film: "I thought people like you existed only in novels."

If Mr Six is a fish out of water today, what does it say about the world we live in?

The opening scene shows a pickpocket about to chuck a wallet into the garbage after he has rifled through it. Then, a calm, measured voice cuts through the wintry night, suggesting that he return the contents since he has already taken the cash. That turns out to be Mr Six, with birdcage in hand, stepping in with quiet authority when others would have turned a blind eye.

The English title Mr Six does not convey the reverence the denizens of the neighbourhood have for him - either "liu ye", Master Six, or "liu ge", Brother Six. Ironically, his relationship with his own son is in tatters, the price he pays for having neglected his family in the past.

The film is a compelling character study meshed with a thriller that gives it a sense of urgency. Director Guan Hu, whose debut rock music movie Dirt (1994) established him as a major voice among China's Sixth Generation film-makers, handles the material with a sure hand.

  • REVIEW / DRAMA CRIME

  • MR SIX (M18)

    137 minutes/Now showing/4/5 stars

Packing plenty of observations about contemporary Chinese society, the Golden Horse-nominated script by Guan and screenwriter Dong Runnian is darkly cynical about the erosion of values and loyalty. Yet it never comes across as didactic and the story manages to surprise even as it feels inevitable. The ending is spectacular. Guan stages with great visual flair a showdown on a frozen lake - a clash between generations, between value systems, between the brute force of might and courage to do what is right.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Social commentary with visual flair'. Print Edition | Subscribe