An father-son bond triggers a study in bleak cityscapes and pervasive intergenerational malaise.
An irreparable father-son bond triggers a study in bleak cityscapes and pervasive intergenerational malaise in “Chongqing Blues.” Initially as glum as its title would suggest, Wang Xiaoshuai’s poignant if plodding ninth feature — which follows an absentee father trying to glean information about the dead son he never knew — eventually opens up with a handful of quietly affecting moments, but elsewhere bogs down in psychodramatic flashbacks that ultimately sentimentalize as much as they clarify. Respectable fest run looks assured for a downbeat drama that won’t do much to widen the Chinese helmer’s commercial following offshore.
Forming a loose urban triptych with Wang’s “Beijing Bicycle” (2002) and Cannes jury prizewinner “Shanghai Dreams” (2005), “Chongqing Blues” opens with a blunt, effective evocation of its title: It’s Chongqing, and it’s blue. A cable car carries sea captain Lin Quanhai (Wang Xueqi) above the harbor and into the city, located in China’s Sichuan province and captured here at bustling street level.
Quanhai is on a sad and lonely mission: Returning from several months at sea, he’s seeking firsthand accounts of the recent death of his son Bo (Zi Yi, seen in the past), who knifed two people in a mall, took one hostage and was eventually shot dead by police. Angrily rebuffed by the boy’s grief-stricken mother — who, like Quanhai, now has a family of her own — the father patiently, doggedly reaches out to those involved: the two stab victims, the brave hostage (Fan Bingbing), even the cop who fired the gun. With some persuasion, most of them prove willing to talk, their firsthand accounts murkily illustrated by flashbacks and security-cam footage.
Pic is shot in a key of dour naturalism, with little artificial lighting and a searching handheld style that mirrors the restless probing of Quanhai’s quest; Wu Di’s camera frequently favors a position from directly behind the man’s head, suggesting a Sino spin on the Dardenne brothers’ “The Son,” also a fable of fatherly redemption. Yet there’s a rather studied quality to the bleakness here, which is interrupted periodically by explosive emotional outbursts that don’t always feel organic.
Quanhai is obsessed with piecing together a portrait of his son (quite literally, when he demands a blown-up poster of Bo’s face from a low-grade screen capture), setting up a psychological mystery that the flashbacks dispel rather too quickly. These scenes do energize the film to a degree, administering a jolt of hostage drama to the proceedings. But the more we see of this troubled teen, the less interesting he becomes, especially in a contrived memory sequence, set at the port city of Rizhao (pic’s Chinese title is “Rizhao Chongqing”).
As ever with Wang’s films, “Chongqing Blues” is invested in thematic questions that loom large over the central drama, as signaled by repeated shots of the city’s fog-enshrouded skyline. An immersive sequence set in a nightclub jammed with revelers blissing out on teen pop conveys the profound alienation Quanhai (and by extension, all parents his age) feels toward the younger generation — depicted here as almost uniformly aimless party animals, too busy texting and shooting pool to show their elders the proper respect.
Countering this ungenerous view somewhat is the character of Bo’s best friend, Xiao Hao (well played by Qin Hao), who resists Quanhai’s company at first but eventually comes around. So, too, does the audience, helpfully enabled by vet thesp Wang Xueqi’s stoic, stubborn yet affable presence as a dad trying to bridge the generation gap and atone for his negligence — and, in the film’s relatively optimistic view, succeeding as best he can.
Music, withheld at first but for a few wryly plucked guitar strings, gradually trickles into the picture and threatens to turn downright treacly in the final stretch.