A shepherd from rural China is stalked by an idiot who pops up out of nowhere in “A Fool,” a madcap caper-cum-scabrous morality tale that pits a good-natured individual against a society of scammers and bullies. Seasoned mainland thesp Chen Jianbin displays startling maturity in a helming debut that crackles with deadpan humor, feisty performances, rich provincial color and even food for thought. Exploding on the scene at the Golden Horse Awards with multiple nominations and two wins, this dark horse, which has yet to be released anywhere, should ride triumphantly into mainland and Taiwanese markets, while enjoying a decent fest run.
Renowned for his leading role in”The Legend of Zhen Huan” (aka “Empresses in the Palace”), a hit TV series in many Chinese-speaking territories, Chen scored an unprecedented hat trick at the Golden Horse Awards, winning best actor and best new director for “A Fool,” and best supporting actor for his performance in Doze Niu Chen-zer’s “Paradise in Service.” His own acting expertise certainly helps bring out the infectious energy in the excellent ensemble cast assembled here.
The film’s source is “Running Midnight,” a novella by Hu Xuewen, an author who’s had six fiction books adapted for screen; his mordant wit and rich narrative structure translate smoothly in Chen’s screenplay, without sounding too literary or schematic. The Chinese title, which translates as “ladle” or “spoon” in standard Mandarin, is Shanxi dialect for “a fool,” but the yarn actually takes place in Gansu province.
The pic opens in the bustling town square of Caowotan, where sheep farmer Latiaozi (Chen), pestered by a starving half-wit (Jin Shijia), offers him half of his packed lunch. The small gesture of goodwill becomes the protag’s undoing, as he finds himself unable to shake off his new “friend.” The filthy tramp somehow turns up at Latiaozi’s cottage and frightens his Muslim wife, Jinzhizi (Chen’s real-life wife, Jiang Qinqin), by calling her “Mom.” Dying to throw him out but worried that he’ll freeze to death on their premises, the couple let him spend the night in their sheep shed.
While the idiot doggedly clings to Latiaozi, the shepherd goes on a wild goose chase after Brother Datou (Wang Xuebin, “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” “The Silent War”), a wheeler-dealer with whom he has a financial dispute. He makes daily rounds to grill Datou’s harem of mistresses about his whereabouts, their altercations sizzling with droll dialogue. When he finally corners his target, Datou delivers a tour de force of rhetorical chutzpah in his own defense that offers a commentary on China’s moral bankruptcy. Even when Latiaozi seeks counsel from the police, the bone-dry Officer Yang (Li Li), an embodiment of mainland officialdom, clearly couldn’t care less if the idiot died.
Perhaps it will come as no surprise to audiences that the protags warm to the idiot in spite of themselves, especially when a misfortune relating to their son is revealed. Yet the three characters’ absurd interactions provide a constant source of amusement, while offsetting everyone else’s smug cynicism.
About two-thirds into the pic, another twist lands the couple in a bizarre mishap, embroiling them in a tug-of-war for the idiot’s ownership. Their plight comes to resemble that of the heroine in Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” as eye-opening specimens of hustlers and thugs invade their modest lives. The tragicomic scenarios are further enlivened by interludes involving their neighborhood grocery storeowner Li Laosan (Wang Xufeng), who delivers the smart-alecky aphorism “Life is like this” with perfect comic timing.
Chen deftly brings out the parallel between Latiaozi and the idiot, as the former, too, is forced by unjust circumstances to become a stalker and mocked as “a fool” for his decent values. On two occasions, he vents his frustrations on the idiot and Jinzizhi; the sudden of eruption of cruelty is particularly disturbing, revealing how an unjust social system takes a toll on even the most docile people. The yarn does lose some steam toward the end when it spells out its moral too bluntly, as when Jinzhizi breaks into a fit: “Why do good people always have bad endings?” By the time the film reaches an absurdist conclusion, its impact and ingenuity are partially worn out by the trail of farcical encounters that came before.
Chen’s awesome portrayal of the tragicomic protag is crucial to the film’s success: Whether playing a simple bumpkin at the start or spiraling into desperation and lunacy, the 44-year-old actor is exuberantly expressive while eliciting genuine sympathy. Hailed as one of China’s most beautiful actresses during her heyday as a TV star in the 90s, Jiang, 39, totally looks the part as a frumpy peasant woman whose maternal instincts outweigh her pettiness. The pair’s incessant onscreen bickering is tempered by an undercurrent of tenderness that can only be authentic. Still, the film wouldn’t be such a riot without the delightfully roguish Datou (literally “Big Head”), whose scenes have a frenetic vibe, as they’re all shot inside his car. Oozing shadiness from every pore, Huang wins over audiences with his sheer bravado.
The film was shot in Dingtai County, Gansu, once an important hub on the Silk Road and inhabited by many Muslim and Tibetan ethnic minorities. Little-known lenser Xie Tianxiang captures the vast, solitary landscape in breathtaking seasonal shots. Other tech credits are competent.