China again serves notice it can produce quality contempo dramas on a par with any other Asian country with “Curiosity Kills the Cat,” a psychodrama-cum-puzzle piece set among five characters in Chongqing. With its echoes of Yank genre fare like “Fatal Attraction,” well-tooled sophomore outing by writer-director Zhang Yibai (“Spring Subway,” 2002) should find a preliminary Western welcome at Asiaphile events and broadminded fests. Pic opened wide in China Oct. 12.
Teaming with noted scripter Huo Xin (“Kung Fu Hustle,” “Quitting,” “Shower”), Zhang was clearly inspired by shooting in his hilly hometown, whose vertical profile, misty landscape and churning Yangtze River he paints with deft, understated strokes. Helmer has shed some of the mannerisms that slowed down “Subway” while retaining his distinctively cool eye, which fits the generic subject matter.
Complex structure, clarified by occasional intertitles, basically tells the same story from various viewpoints, starting with that of Momo (Lin Yuan), a waif-like photog who runs a studio next to the lobby of an upscale apartment building. Ever-curious Momo, who secretly snaps everything and everyone with her cell phone, realizes businessman John Zheng (Hu Jun), married with a kid to the cool and classy Rose Feng (Carina Lau), is dallying with hotsy Sharon Liang (Song Jia), who’s just opened a manicure business next door.
While investigating the affair, Momo gets to know Rose, who’s clearly unhappily married. And someone seems to have it in for Rose, spilling red paint on her hubby’s auto and then tipping buckets of the stuff on the glass roof of her conservatory.
In the third reel, story backtracks six months and shows the John-Sharon relationship from his perspective, prior to rerunning some of the earlier scenes, which now take on a different resonance.
When Rose and John’s kid goes missing, and one of the protags is suddenly murdered, script rewinds again and story is told from the perspective of Liu Fendou (Liao Fan), a security guard at the apartment building whom Momo has taken a liking to.
Last section is the most absorbing, as Rose’s character develops real texture and the story a social element — the widening gap between rich and poor — that deepens the drama. Mainland-born Lau, in a rare outing where she speaks native Mandarin rather than (as in her Hong Kong pics) Cantonese, comes into her own as Rose, but she’s given a sly run for her money by the late-blooming Liao, as the impoverished guard who’s treated with disdain by the wealthy wife.
Pic’s main weaknesses are Momo’s underdeveloped character, who’s never tightly enough bound to the drama, and Hu’s distanced perf as the conflicted husband. At least one scene, where John breaks down in tears, doesn’t convince emotionally.
Ace d.p. Yang Tao (“Little Red Flowers”) gives whole movie an attractive sheen — all clean, modern surfaces — and production design by Hong Kong’s Yank Wong is equally smart. Gentle, semi-jazzy score by Daniel Walker would have benefited from more edge.