Review: ‘Set Off’

A middle-aged restaurateur finds his life thrown into turmoil by a free-wheeling young woman in "Set Off," an odd-couple character comedy that reps a strong calling card from first-time feature helmer Liu Jiang.

A middle-aged restaurateur finds his life thrown into turmoil by a free-wheeling young woman in “Set Off,” an odd-couple character comedy that reps a strong calling card from first-time feature helmer Liu Jiang. Entertaining, one-thing-leads-to-another ride, set in contempo Beijing, is sustained by a cleverly interlocking script, likable perfs by vet comedian Fan Wei and actress Ju Wenpei, and Liu’s carefully composed direction, which avoids pratfall hijinks. Modest performer drew good local reviews on release last October, and is ripe for remake in any language.

Pic was the first to lense under China Film Group’s New Directors Project, announced in 2007, which aims to fund commercially exploitable low-budget features. Tab for “Set Off” was 4 million yuan (about $500,000), though its smooth tech package (led by Cai Shu’nan’s cleanly lit, well-composed lensing) and strong roster of onscreen talent make it look like a regular feature.

With its corkscrew plot, centered on the hunt for some missing money, the film drew comparisons at the time with the Ning Hao-helmed “Crazy Stone,” a similarly low-budget project that is popularly credited with launching the crime-caper genre back in 2006 (even though it antecedents go back to earlier capers like Chen Daming’s “Manhole,” two years earlier). In fact, “Set Off” is more character- than plot-driven, and owes much to Fan’s skill at low-key, working-stiff humor already evidenced in pics like “The Parking Attendant in July.”

A resident for the past seven years in Cyprus, where he owns a restaurant, middle-aged Cui Guoqing (Fan) returns to Beijing for divorce proceedings with his wife (Guo Xiaoxiao), who’s pregnant by another man. Within minutes of arriving, he hears his business partner is planning to sell their eatery, so has to hightail it back to Cyprus that night. But, on the way to the airport, his cab is commandeered by a drunken young woman, Xiao Xia (Ju).

Agreeing to drop her off, he misses his flight when he’s accidentally locked out of her apartment (in which he’s left his money and passport) and a couple of hoods come looking for her. The next day, still trying to retrieve his things, Cui gets caught up in her whole backstory, which involves various criminals trying to retrieve a pile of dollar bills her b.f., Da Bao (Wang Qianyuan), made off with.

As the plot gets increasingly complicated, Cui finds himself hunted by the cops as well as the crims, while — in time-honored fashion — he and Xiao Xia gradually develop a liking for each other.

In her first major film role, Ju, a former TV presenter-turned-TV actress who’s also a professional songwriter (and wrote the pic’s score), is aces as the goodtime gal with a soft heart, holding her own against the experienced Fan and making her character more than just a brassy gold-digger. Tight script keeps the situations coming and provides meaty parts for several supports, including Liu Hua as Cui’s film director pal and Ren Zhengbin as one of the heavies.

Set Off

China

Production

A China Film Group release of a Beijing Film Studio, China Film Group, Beijing Guoli Changsheng Movies & TV Prods. Co. production. (International sales: China Film Group, Beijing.) Executive producers, Han Sanping, Zhuang Cheng. Directed by Liu Jiang. Associate director, Du Jun. Screenplay, Wang Li, Zha Muchun; adaptation, Liu.

Crew

Camera (color), Cai Shu'nan; editor, Yu Xi; music, Ju Wenpei; art director, Wu Ming; sound (Dolby Digital), Dong Xu; assistant director, Zhu Weili. Reviewed on DVD, London, March 17, 2009. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Fan Wei, Ju Wenpei, Liu Hua, Wang Qianyuan, Ren Zhengbin, He Jiang, Zhang Xilin, Li Geng, Du Jun, Gang Yi, Guo Xiaoxiao. (Mandarin dialogue)
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