In Zhang Yuan’s “Beijing Flickers,” suicidal sad-sack hero San Bao loses, in rapid sucession, his girlfriend, his dog, his job and his apartment — and also his voice (an interior monologue compensates for his muteness). But he’s not alone in this arch saga of loss and betrayal; a motley group of three twentysomethings join his silent walks through a city whose rapid rise to wealth and conspicuous consumption have left many in the dust. Zhang tempers his bleak outlook with resilient dry humor that makes his memorable characters’ struggles for survival surprisingly enjoyable, and could snag the film an arthouse release.
On motorcycle, San Bao (Duan Bowen) pursues his runaway dog, Happiness (the name less symbolic than absurdly ironic). His obsessive, numerically specific voiceover reveals he still mourns the g.f. who left him 144 days earlier for a rich man she met 377 days ago and by whom she is now pregnant. When a passerby sabotages his motorized attempts to retrieve the dog, the already volatile San Bao becomes further enraged, assaulting the interloper and getting himself arrested.
Drowning his sorrows at a bar where he rhapsodizes about his lost dog, he suddenly begins to eat the glass, but is stopped by You Zi (Li Xinyun, the gorgeous star of Zhang’s “Little Red Flowers” and “Dada’s Dance”), a singer in the house band.
San Bao winds up in the hospital with lacerated lips, a bandage over his mouth (the beginning of his muteness) and a new, self-proclaimed friend in hospital roommate Xiao Shi (Shi Shi, in a standout turn), who performs graceful fan dances in traditional Chinese drag, recites poetry, and lets slip that he has never known love and is addicted to plastic surgery. San Bao also gets regular visits from Wang Min (Lv Yulai), a lifelong pal from his village who has his own set of troubles.The trio is soon joined by You Zi, herself struggling with a devastating betrayal.
The group wanders around Beijing, marveling at the season’s first snow. They chastise San Bao for his latest foiled suicide attempt after he leaps in front of a truck that screeches to a halt inches from running him over. Meanwhile, a subplot involving You Zi’s roommate Su Mo (Han Wenwen) sees her treated as sexual chattel by her married b.f. But any descent into melodrama is countered by fantasized revenge scenarios that unfold onscreen in exaggerated genre heroics.
Helmer Zhang returns to the marginal milieu of disaffected youth he first explored in 1993’s “Beijing Bastards,” coming back with a more lucid, more assured aesthetic that creates a sympathetic distance from his intrepid, floundering characters. Zhang, who also acted as d.p. along with lenser Cai Tao, contrasts the rubble-filled neighborhoods where the characters live with the opulent hotels and neon-splashed cityscapes through which they pass.