Style, setting and content blend seamlessly in “Empty Town,” which announces a striking addition to the ranks of new Mainland directors in writer-helmer Hu Yaozhi. Largely made with the help of students and professional friends, the pic looks far slicker than its 1.5 million yuan ($200,000) budget would suggest. Fest platforms look likely for this Gallic-flavored drama centered on five young people who reunite in their small hometown over Chinese New Year, and some kind of limited release in Euro territories is not out of the question.
Central figure is Jiang Mei (Zhang Lingxin), who arrives back in the remote village of Tunpu, in Anshun county, Guizhou province, to visit her younger sister, Jiang Gui (Jiao Junyan) and grandma (Zhai Huaxiu). Observing her arrival from a rooftop is young roofer Song Yu (Li Haozhen), longtime boyfriend of Jiang Gui.
Jiang Mei originally left the village to work in the coastal city of Shenzhen along with hometown b.f., Lu Zheng (Tie Weiguang). The pair later split, and now she won’t even talk about him. Local gossip is that Lu dumped her and she later got an abortion.
When Lu also turns up for New Year, and then his current fiancee, Lin Fangfang (Li Yiling), the shallow daughter of a rich businessman, the emotional complications begin. Lu, who privately admits to Jiang Mei he’s only marrying Lin to get ahead, wants to mend his bridges with his ex. And as broody Jiang Gui tries to push Song into tying the knot, Song, a local boy who’s never left the village, is forced to confront his feelings for the beautiful, more worldly Jiang Mei.
With its gliding camerawork and elegant crane shots by d.p. Zhang Li (“The Banquet,” “Big Shot’s Funeral”), the pic strongly recalls French movies of the ’60s in which characters work out their internal dramas in a picturesque setting that’s an equal player in the drama. Here it’s the real village of Tunpu, a gray slate-and-stone burg whose small alleys and wintertime landscape form a suitable backdrop to the protags’ emotional shenanigans.
Script, co-written by Cui Zien (taking a 180-degree break from his own arty, low-budget gay dramas), doesn’t plumb any revelatory depths, but neatly balances the various characters’ stories in a semi-abstract way. There are few fireworks, and some auds may find the whole thing as empty as the town itself, but those responsive to stylish filmmaking with an attractive cast and setting will stay hooked. Gao Jia’s chamber score provides a big assist.
Best perfs come from Jiao as the small-town younger sister and Tie as the opportunistic Lu. Zhang makes a photogenic lead and bonds well onscreen with Jiao, though her playing doesn’t fully register her character’s true hurt.
Helmer Hu, 38, a performance prof at Beijing Film Academy under his real name Hu Qiang, already shot a second feature, “Cong Fei,” immediately after lensing “Empty Town” last year. Pic also stars Zhang.