Claws are definitely extended in “Good Cats,” a sharp satire revealing the dark side of China’s economic miracle that goes for blood and gets it too. Maintaining their rep as leaders of Chinese cinema’s digital-video renaissance, multihypenate helmer Ying Liang and producer/co-writer Peng Shan apply the low-tech, high-concept aesthetic of their previous pics, “Taking Father Home” and “The Other Half,” to this, their third feature and again use non-pro actors. Ironic, blackly humorous tale tracing the comeuppance of an amoral young lout should be welcome at fests, and might even play niche arthouses.
Set in Zigong, a fast-growing inland city in Southwest China’s Sichuan province (where shoddy building practices caused increased casualties in May’s devastating earthquake), pic’s opening moments epitomize its premise of the new China’s false promise. Naive 29-year-old Luo Liang (Luo Liang) is pleased by a fortuneteller’s prediction that his upcoming birthday will mark a threshold. It’s a prophecy that soon proves exquisitely cynical.
Luo works as errand boy, driver and debt collector for Boss Peng (Peng Deming), a former shopkeeper-turned-crooked real estate developer. The great hope of his peasant family, Luo is scorned by his snobbish wife (Wang Qian) and her intellectual parents, who nag him to learn some skills, find a better job, and quit smoking and drinking.
But Luo is content in his lifestyle and work, apparently not put off by having to act as a lethal enforcer for Peng, or by the suicide of his mentor (Liu Xiaopei). His marriage, however, is another story: While his wife ostensibly works the night shift at the hospital, he is romancing a prostitute.
Ying and Peng employ a striking Brechtian device that makes “Good Cats” stand out from other recent films depicting corruption, thuggery and sexual frustration in capitalist China: At key moments, the frame turns into a tableau and a black-clad rock band (Lamb’s Funeral) materializes. Their songs offer a Greek chorus-like perspective on the action, with lyrics such as, “Dark thoughts push me towards sin … Who can say how to live in this world for someone as mediocre as I.”
Another layer of ironic commentary comes via the cheap but effective production design, which wittily incorporates upbeat TV promos for the upcoming Olympics.
Although pic’s cheap video look and minimalist acting are initially off-putting, the story proves steadily engrossing, building to a scorching climax.
Title references a saying by former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaopeng: “As long as a cat can catch a mouse, it is a good cat, no matter whether it is black or white.” While slamming this “ends justifies the means” mentality, the helmer has sly fun with the cat metaphor throughout the pic.