Celebrated Chinese scenarist Liu Fendou (“Spring Subway,” “Shower”) makes a dazzling helming debut with a daring thriller/melodrama where bank heists vie with penile dysfunction for center stage. Scripter Liu’s wry tone, incorporating a “Psycho”-type switch of protagonists midstream, is well served by helmer Liu’s compelling static compositions and story’s strange perspective seems at one with the camera’s startling changes of angle and focal distance. Pic deservedly copped top honors for feature and director at Tribeca, and it shouldn’t be long before some enterprising distrib throws this distinctive “Hat” in the arthouse ring.
On a windswept beach, a shaggy-haired youth tells a quasi-Godardian joke about genre and audience expectation as three friends casually set in motion what turns out to be a bank robbery.
Displaying no anxiety as they steal cars or prime guns, the threesome’s primary concern is the imminent departure of one of their number, Wang Yao (Liao Fan), about to fly to America to rejoin the girlfriend he hasn’t seen in two sexually abstinent years. The actual robbery takes place off-screen. The three then calmly get back into their car and drive away, doffing wigs and false identities with practiced ease.
Dual focus persists in Wang’s pre-flight phone call to his girlfriend from a neighborhood grocery. As Wangstrains to hear his g.f. deliver an out-of-the-blue Dear John message, the grocery’s eavesdropping female proprietor demands payment for use of the store telephone.
At this point, pic makes a stunning U-turn as Wang pulls his gun on the storeowner, and timeexpands exponentially: As the broken couple carry on their emotion-choked farewells, sirens herald the arrival of police. In the ensuing faceoff, the top cop offers himself as substitute hostage for the shop owner, and Wang puts a gun to his head, demanding an answer to the question “What is love?” Suddenly, Wang turns the pistol on himself — and the cop (Li Congxi) becomes the focus of the last two-thirds of the movie.
The policeman’s story similarly counterpoints extreme emotionality with dispassionate violence as he struggles with sexual inadequacy and an unfaithful wife (a green hat is the sign of a cuckold). The policeman’s gun-toting confrontation with his wife’s (Li Mei) cowering lover (Hai Yitian) in the locker room of a swimming pool veers from farce to tearjerker without losing its dominant note of quiet despair. The almost identical birthday cakes and bouquets both husband and lover carry differ only in size, which leads to further trouser-dropping comparisons. (It seems the only area in which the two men are equal is their utter inability to understand the same woman.)
Auds will be stunned by pic’s extreme sexual frankness, while potent juxtaposition of sentiment and abstraction strikes a post-modern chord. Tech credits are aces, particularly lensing by Chen Ying and Peng Li, whose stark plays with two-and three-dimensional space add mystery and vibrancy to otherwise seemingly dead-end surfaces.