Money fever has been a growing theme in Mainland Chinese cinema over the past decade or so, but it's hitched to an unusually well-constructed script in "Crazy Lottery," a black comedy of avarice and betrayal over a winning ticket.

Money fever has been a growing theme in Mainland Chinese cinema over the past decade or so, but it’s hitched to an unusually well-constructed script in “Crazy Lottery,” a black comedy of avarice and betrayal over a winning ticket. Though the title deliberately evokes the 2006 crime-caper comedy “Crazy Stone,” this is very different fare, not dependent on goofy or physical humor. Densely plotted first feature by author-playwright Gong Yingtian, which opened mid-October, hauled only an un-crazy $108,000 in its first seven weeks, but pic is ideal for fests and cablers hunting quality, accessible movies from China.

Opening reel sets up the characters like a noirish mystery, as a car (driver unseen) is involved in a nighttime hit-and-run accident with an old beggar woman (Liu Yuhuan) on the outskirts of Beijing and subsequently careens into a lake. In another car, on the same road, is Lu Jianfei (Zhao Chunyang); his second wife, Xiaoyan (Xu Jun); and his young daughter (Dong Hui), who come across the accident and call a cop they know, Ma Hong (Ji Ning).

Next day, Jianfei meets up with his oldest friend, Wang Wei (Li Yixiang), at the hospital where Wei had taken his “sick” wife. Wei seems troubled by news of the accident; Liyun’s angry younger sister, Liwen (Huang Juan), thinks Liyun is in hospital because Wei beat her up.

Then, back home, Wei learns from the TV that he’s won 12 million yuan ($1.6 million) on the lottery. First problem is that the ticket is in the car that’s in the lake; second problem is that he doesn’t trust his wife, so he tells the news only to Jianfei.

Not wanting any personal publicity, Wei hatches a plan whereby Jianfei and Wei’s maid, Xiaolian (Liao Weiwei), collect the winnings and Wei waits for them at the bank to deposit it.

Opening 40 minutes or so take a while to sort out the characters and their relationships, though by the time the first betrayal takes place, the individuals are well enough etched for the script to start playing around with their personalities and viewers’ initial perceptions. From apparently being the villain of the piece (a wife-beating hit-and-runner), Wei now becomes the victim, as Jianfei claims he’s owed a share of the proceedings.

As more and more info emerges about how the lotto ticket was bought, what exactly happened the night of the accident, and a dark secret in Jianfei’s past, plot juggles more and more characters as everyone tries for a share of the windfall. As scene follows scene of people meeting, plotting and working out angles, it emerges that not even Jianfei holds ultimate control over the winnings.

Much of the pleasure lies in simply watching the cleverly constructed script — one of the best of its kind since Chen Daming’s 2003 “Manhole” — play itself out as the characters evolve and shift positions. Gong’s poised direction never gets in the way of the words or the actors. Ensemble playing is good down the line, but pic is anchored by Li’s nicely bemused perf as Wei, who turns out to be the least avaricious of the whole bunch.

Only in the final reel does the movie lose its cool control, as physical comedy takes over to resolve the plot’s Gordian knot, which implies that the madness is neverending and unresolvable.

English title on the actual print is “The Great Prize,” though the film is being sold internationally as “Crazy Lottery” (the meaning of the Chinese title). A more suitable title, reflecting pic’s tone, would be something like “The Big Win.”

Crazy Lottery

China

Production

A Beijing Forbidden City & Trinity Picture Co., Beijing Flower Sky Media Co., Beijing Dongtai United Intl. Advertising Co. production. (International sales: Global Entertainment Group, Beijing.) Produced by Gan Tao, Zhou Peijin, Lu Baoyi, Chen Yanyi, Rukpong Tupprasoot. Executive producers, Wei Jian, Nai Chang, Zhang Yumei. Co-producers, Zhang Ruoshui, Li Lu. Co-executive producers, Gao Jun, Johnny Hon. Directed, written by Gong Yingtian.

Crew

Camera (color), Duan Zhengjun; editor, Gao Xiujuan; music, Liang Chong; costume designer, Xing Qinghai; sound, Wang Enfeng, Wang Qian, Wang Chuang; action director, Wang Xinfeng; assistant director, Ma Chengbo. Reviewed on DVD, Berlin, Nov. 16, 2007. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Li Yixiang, Zhao Chunyang, Ding Liuyuan, Huang Juan, Xu Jun, Zi Qi, Zhang Cheng Xiaoyong, Liu Yuhuan, Liao Weiwei, Ji Ning, Dong Hui, Hong Liu, Ge Yaming. (Mandarin dialogue)
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