Some four years after shooting, Wang Xiaoshuai’s “So Close to Paradise” sees the light of day in a clearly reworked but still striking version that looks set to play the festival circuit and garner mostly small-screen sales along the way. Nicely shot, smoothly assembled drama about two friends in the big city, and a young Vietnamese woman who enters their world, has a verismo feel for the seedier side of contempo mainland life, plus a relatively realistic portrayal of sexuality. Pic was released in China in the fall and had its first offshore airing in Hong Kong in December.
Following last year’s release of Lu Xuechang’s “The Making of Steel,” Wang’s movie is the latest to surface of a small number of shelved (or export-banned) mainland pics much sought-after by Sinophiles, but little seen. Shot under the title “The Girl From Vietnam” (Yuenan laide guniang), it finally snuck out in Hong Kong under the totally misleading English moniker “Take Me Off” and now is being sold internationally as “So Close to Paradise.” Pic was Wang’s second feature after “The Days” (1993), an impressive but low-budget B&W calling card that toured fests at the time. Pic soon disappeared from sight after shooting, reportedly running into trouble with the authorities due to its “negative” qualities and the key role of the Vietnamese woman to whom the two male leads are in thrall.
Final version, at a trim 93 minutes, shows clear signs of reworking. An opening caption situates the story in “the late ’80s,” thus safely distancing events from the present; a running voiceover by the main character is used to cover gaps in the narrative and to give the pic a clear message; and clear differences in color processing (especially in dialogue scenes that relate unshown events) hint at re-shoots.
All that aside, the final result is more than just interesting. As mainland cinema has moved on in the intervening years, any changes may have benefited the movie by keeping it more au courant with present trends. Bottom line is that the pic mostly works, situating itself in look and feel somewhere between the mainstream and high-art fare.
Action takes place in Wuhan, a major commercial crossroads on the Yangtze River, deep in central China, whither have come Dongzi (Shi Yu) and Gao Ping (Guo Tao), two friends from the same village in Huangpi, north of the city. Dongzi, the film’s narrator, works as a port coolie (a “pole-carrier”) and thinks he can succeed in life through hard work and honesty; the older Gao is a fast-track type who wouldn’t put a pole across his back if his life depended on it.
At a cellar nightclub, the two meet tarty chanteuse Ruan Hong (singer Wang Tong). Gao, hearing she knows Su Wu (Wu Tao), a gangster who’d cheated him out of some money (shown in pic’s unexplained opening scene), asks her where he can find him. When she refuses, Gao and Dongzi cart her back to their dingy rooftop apartment, where she’s initially their prisoner and later Gao’s lover.
In one of the film’s several ellipses, Dongzi comments in voiceover: “I don’t know why they suddenly became a couple, but because of this girl Gao Ping lost his life,” which conveniently glides over the sexual small print and also establishes Ruan as the foreign bad influence.
Thereon, pic develops into a tragic triangle, with Dongzi forming an attachment to Ruan after her bust-up with Gao, and the two of them becoming drawn into Gao’s war with Su. A simple coda wraps things in quieter mode.
Though there are plenty of small signs that the movie has been transformed from a much grittier original, the only blatant example is a sequence — one of several with richer color processing — of Ruan confessing her bad ways in front of TV reporters. (When asked if she is actually Vietnamese, she significantly doesn’t reply.) Otherwise, the ellipses work rather well, bringing a remembered quality to the movie that centers it firmly on the naive character of Dongzi.
Performances are all flavorful, especially Wang as the singer, Guo as Gao, and Wu as the dangerous criminal element. Yang Tao’s finely judged lensing makes use of shadow and chiaroscuro without over-prettifying the down-at-heel locations. Liu Lin’s chordal, synthesized score adds occasional atmosphere. Chinese title on print means simply “The Pole-Carrier and the Girl,” with any reference to Vietnam expunged; that used on Hong Kong posters — Jide nide wenrou — translates as “I Remember Your Gentleness.”