Any observer of office politics will get a quiet kick out of “Back to Back, Face to Face,” a long but involving satire on bureaucratic trench warfare, modern Chinese style, that boasts wonderful ensemble perfs and a script dripping with subtle ironies. Second pic in mainland helmer Huang Jianxin’s loose trilogy on the country’s fast-changing urban life is a fine, if more low-key, successor to his 1992 “Stand Up, Don’t Bend Over” and will find a solid following at fest screenings. Small-screen sales should be warm, though theatrical more problematic.
Central character is tubby,thirtyish Wang, assistant director of the Cultural Center in Xi’an, one of China’s oldest cities, who’s liked by his staff, is a master manipulator, but still can’t make it to the top rung. To everyone’s surprise, the vacant post of director is given to a rustic Communist cadre member, Old Ma, and under the guise of help and cooperation, Wang sets about trying to get him pushed upstairs.
But when Old Ma is finally transferred, another bureaucrat takes his place — the younger, sharper Yan, who’s up to Wang’s games and not about to roll over. Wang’s crafty old father engineers a situation in which Yan is publicly humiliated, but the latter manages to keep his position as director and exact revenge on Wang, who collapses from the strain and is hospitalized.
With Wang temporarily off the field, his colleagues set up Yan for the big fall by suggesting he program laser-disc shows of hotsy foreign movies at the center. The ruse works, but Wang himself has by now decided there’s more to life than ladder-climbing.
Director Huang trod some of this ground in earlier works like “The Black Cannon Incident” and “The Stand-In,” both acid satires of fumbling bureaucracy and the mindless machinery of Chinese hierarchies. In the meantime, he’s discarded the stylistic baggage of such movies and, as in “Stand Up,” which satirized the country’s new entrepreneurialism, places complete focus on well-cast ensemble playing and solid scripting, both of which catch the nuances of double-edged dialogue and everyday conversation. Visually, pic is cool and unstylized.
There’s hardly a character who doesn’t emerge as a fully drawn individual, each constantly adapting to shifting circumstances. Even Wang’s young wife, initially a shrewish nag, develops sympathetic wrinkles, mostly through the lunatic subplot of her sly old father-in-law quietly trying to poison her daughter (and make her handicapped) so the family can get official dispensation from the state’s one-child policy and have a second sprig.
Ensemble playing, led by the wonderful, ever-smiling Niu Zhenhua (the vulgar businessman in “Stand Up”) as Wang, is tiptop, with special praise also for Liu Guoxiang as the father, Ju Hao as the Vicar-of-Bray accountant, and Li Haihai as the wife. Tech credits are par.
Movie is one of a slate produced by Hong Kong-based Simpson Communications using helmers from China, Taiwan and H.K. Scenes in the rickety, temple-like Cultural Center were actually shot on Hainan island, with most of the rest in Xi’an itself. Huang is planning to expand the movie into a five-hour miniseries, further developing the characters. Though current version is full of plot, pic could easily be trimmed by half an hour to aid theatrical chances.