A potentially involving story is too often chopped off at the knees by mannered direction in “Drifters,” a film that keeps slipping out of the viewer’s emotional grasp. The pic, a portrait of a young drifter who returns to his home village in coastal China and tries to reconnect with his illegitimate young son, is way too long at two hours. The honor of preeming at Cannes, plus Wang Xiaoshuai’s existing rep with pics like “Beijing Bicycle,” will propel this further along the fest circuit, but pic is less accessible than some other works from the Mainland Chinese helmer and paying customers thus will be considerably fewer.
Wang’s five previous movies have shown a range of styles, from his arty B&W debut “The Days” and “Frozen” to mid-range works like “So Close to Paradise” and “Beijing Bicycle.” He’s also helmed the family comedy-drama “The House” (1999), a fine, highly accessible picture that has hardly been shown outside China. “Drifters” falls somewhere between his two extremes.
Though nominally a Hong Kong production, pic was made by a combination of Mainland and Taiwanese talent, with postproduction by the latter. Technically, it’s top-drawer and, like “Beijing Bicycle,” has a strong Taiwanese flavor and look, despite being set and lensed in China.
Pic is set on the seaboard of Fujian province, where a large number of illegal immigrants to the West start their journey. The tale is bookended by scenes of people paying their last respects to their families and country before boarding a boat into the darkness, and possible death en route. One guy who’s recently been repatriated to China, after several years as an illegal in the U.S., is Hong Yunsheng (Duan Long), who now spends his days as a slacker in the village.
Hong fancies the attractive Wu Ruifang (Shu Yan), a member of a traveling Shanghai Opera troupe, though their loose relationship is stymied by Hong’s listless attitude. Some kind of meaning returns to his life when he hears a young son he fathered in the U.S. has been brought back to the village by the kid’s proud grandfather.
However, the grandfather refuses to let Hong see his son. After much semi-humorous to-and-fro-ing, Hong eventually manages to spend a day with the child, playing by the seaside along with Wu and another friend.
This sequence, , aided by Wang Feng’s joyful score, starts slowly but gathers emotional momentum and becomes the film’s emotional highpoint. It’s also the strongest hint of what the film could have been if Wang Xiaoshuai had taken off the brakes more often.
There’s plenty of potentially juicy material here: the status of returning emigrants, the whole question of why many Chinese still consider the U.S. a land of milk and honey even as their own country rapidly modernizes, and so on. But despite several “up” moments, the film is consistently dragged down by scenes of characters lounging around, indulging in non-sequitur conversations or no conversation at all, and with information about the protagonists only doled out in grudging amounts. Anomie rules.
Performances, largely by screen newcomers, are OK within their limitations, though Duan scarcely illuminates Hong’s interior feelings and Shu gets few chances to make Wu much of a character.
Wang’s direction is very precise — apart from a notable blunder of showing the film crew reflected in a window pane — but adds to the sense of emotional torpor by frequently shooting locations from the same angle on different occasions. Color processing, done in Taiwan, is clean and rich.
Original Mandarin title means “Younger Brother,” Hong’s nickname.