There’s not much in contempo Chinese cinema to compare with “Thomas Mao,” an eccentric piece of whimsy about the friendship between an awkward European traveler and a short-tempered innkeeper in the backwaters of Inner Mongolia. Packing martial-arts fantasies and visions of an alien invasion into the dreamlike narrative, mainland helmer Zhu Wen has produced his most entertaining and technically polished feature to date. This offbeat charmer with a wonderful final twist deserves local arthouse exposure, and is a good fit for fests and specialized tube outlets. Domestic release is pending.
Zhu has upped his storytelling skills considerably from his uneven previous features “Seafood” and “Rain Clouds Over Wushan.” Despite its absurdist humor and visual flights of fancy, “Thomas Mao” remains firmly on message as a culture-clash comedy poking gentle fun at both sides of the East-West divide.
In 2008, while Beijing is hosting the Olympic Games, English-speaking European artist Thomas (Thomas Rohdewald) marches into a rickety farmhouse-cum-hostel run by country bumpkin Mao (Mao Yan). While neither arrogant Thomas nor hotheaded Mao has a clue what the other is saying, Thomas eventually succeeds in getting Mao to clear a sord of ducks from a guest room and pose for his sketches.
A delightful aspect of Thomas’ and Mao’s miscommunication is that neither makes any attempt to improve matters with sign language or body gestures. Result is a half-hour of sustained amusement as the duo talk at cross-purposes and establish a routine much like that of an old married couple who aren’t happy unless they’re bickering.
Screenplay flies into another dimension when the men simultaneously dream of a black-clad female warrior (Jin Zi) and a white-robed male (Ye Feng) floating around Mao’s property in bloody combat. Representing the yin and yang of Taoist philosophy, this beautifully choreographed setpiece starts as a metaphor for the distance between Thomas and Mao, and concludes with an exquisite image of the enemy fighters uniting into a symbol of hope and harmony. An alien invasion later imagined by Thomas further advances Zhu’s commentary on the commonality of human experience beyond barriers imposed by language and geography.
Zhu’s playful exercise comes full circle with a closing chapter, consisting of docu footage in which Rohdewald and Mao appear as themselves, that enriches all that’s gone before, and allows multiple interpretations of where the pic’s realities and fantasies stop and start.
Lensing of lush greenery around Mao’s lakeside property as well as the color-drained docu scenes is topnotch, with carefully framed compositions and sweeping crane shots that enhance the dreamy atmosphere. Other technical work is pro.