Mainland Chinese cinema takes a major step forward with “Mr. Zhao,” a trenchantly observed study of a habitual womanizer that’s shot through with a delicious sense of irony and genuine warmth for its characters. In line with several other recent pics showing modern urban life in China, this directorial debut by noted cinematographer Lu Yue (Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” “Shanghai Triad”) makes no concessions to Western tastes for “exotic” rural or historical settings, instead portraying contempo relationships in a real but always cinematic way. Structurally bold pic may alienate some auds in the early going but pays dividends down the track, signaling fest dates and quality tube sales. Film deservedly copped the top Golden Leopard award at its Locarno world preem.
First 40 minutes of the movie function as a tightly focused intro to the three main characters, dominated by two long sequences after Zhao (Shi Jingming), a Shanghai doctor, is caught in bed with his mistress (Chen Yinan) by his wife (Zhang Zhihua).
The wife, a dumpy, uneducated factory worker under threat of being pink-slipped, is shattered — by Zhao’s betrayal and his seeming in-ability to explain his actions. In scenes in their apartment, shot hand-held in medium close-up and verging on Ken Loach-style cinema, her emotions range from anger through self-pity to apparent acceptance in the face of Zhao’s quiet reasonableness.
Pic then cuts to an equally long sequence, shot in a similar style, between Zhao and his mistress, a young former student whose self-possession and ambition are scarcely disguised by her perky, lively facade. In the same way as the sequence with the wife, this seg starts at one point but rapidly journeys through conflicting emotions to end at another: In this case, the mistress’ revealing that she’s pregnant and threatening to tell Zhao’s wife.
As well as thoroughly detailing both women in his life, pic’s first half also reveals Zhao’s prevaricating attitude to life — ostrich-like and undoubtedly selfish, but perhaps unconsciously so.
Though it maintains its elliptical, scenes-from-a-life structure, with the passage of time left open to audience interpretation, the movie then gradually broadens out, with the wife arranging a meeting among all three in a restaurant; the mistress having an abortion at a hospital (where Zhao, in a brilliantly played scene, is confronted by a friend of the woman); Zhao being hospitalized after a traffic accident; and his memories while under medication of a nascent affair with an out-of-towner (Jiang Wenli). Pic’s twist ending is beautifully judged and gently ironic.
Considering Lu’s varied but always striking portfolio as a d.p. — other pics include “On the Hunting Ground,” “Buddha’s Lock,” “Soul of a Painter” and “Keep Cool” — and the fact that much of the dialogue was improvised, the film is a model of visual and actorly restraint.
Perfs by the three women, capped by a wonderfully observed portrait of growing attraction by Jiang, are all on the money, as well as succinctly sketching various attitudes and tensions in modern mainland life. As Zhao, Shi is a low-key charmer, magnetically attracted to women of all kinds without any thoughts for the consequences.
Though totally funded from within China, credits carry a Hong Kong co-producer’s tag for convenience, and there are doubts at this stage whether the movie will be passed for release within the country.
Tech credits are top-class, with a gradually warmer hue to the photography by Wang Tianlin. Pic’s realistic use of dialect is uncommon among mainland movies: Both the wife and the mistress’s friend slip into earthy-sounding Shanghainese for effect.