Helmer Huang Jianxin, China’s sharpest and most humanist observer of changing social patterns, returns after an absence of four years with “Gimme Kudos,” a warm, ironic and deliciously written portrait of the abiding need for face. “Kudos” is made in the same mold as Huang’s ’90s movies like “Stand Up, Don’t Bend Over” and “Back to Back, Face to Face,” but with slicker packaging that shows the influence of local hitmeister Feng Xiaogang (here serving as exec producer). This beautifully crafted comedy of manners deserves molto fest exposure prior to quality tube recognition. Pic went out locally in mid-September.
Since his 1986 debut with “The Black Cannon Incident,” Huang has shaken off his artier pretensions and evolved into a true chronicler of the ironies of everyday Mainland life. Most of his films lack the exotic smarts to attract Western distribution beyond fests (one film, cop drama “Xi’an’s Finest,” has been practically unseen outside China). However, his films deserve way more recognition than they’ve received, especially those done in the past decade including “Surveillance” (1997) and “The Marriage Certificate” (2001).
Typically, “Kudos'” story starts with a small event that gradually fans out to involve a wide number of people. In an unnamed city — film was shot in Nanjing — an offscreen narrator describes how his life changed one day when Yang Hongqi (Fan Wei) walked into his office, demanding kudos for having “saved someone.”
Narrator is Gu Guoge (Wang Zhiwen), a senior reporter on an evening paper, and Yang is a tubby, working-class stiff from the outskirts. In a flashback, shot in mock-melodramatic style with rain and blue light, Yang tells how, on Feb. 14 (Valentine’s Day), he saved a young woman, Ouyang Hua (Chen Hao), from being raped in the street.
Yang wants Gu to publish the story for the record but, without any hard proof, the latter refuses. However, when Yang repeatedly returns to ask Gu about the story, Gu decides to track down the university student Yang said he saved.
When Gu finds Ouyang, she denies the incident; and the local cops, eager to prove their precinct is crime free, say they found no evidence of the attempted rape when Yang filed a report. Gu’s editor (Liu Zifeng) says he won’t publish anything without firm proof.
Classic set-up, in which a simple truth becomes mired in social etiquette, bureaucratic procedure and personal issues, comically spreads out to touch all areas of Gu’s life, as well as China’s history of the past 40 years.
Gu’s feisty cop wife, Miyi (Miao Pu), who keeps a punching bag in their apartment with his face on it, starts tailing him, suspicious of his interest in the babe-licious Ouyang. And when, in the countryside, Gu tracks down Yang’s dying father, a loyal Party member, the truth slowly dawns about Yang’s desperate need for public kudos.
Huang’s best films have all been noted for their well-turned dialogue and subtle performances, and both are delivered in spades here. In another fine straight performance, marbled with sly wit, popular comedian Fan (“The Parking Attendant in July”) neatly plays off against Wang’s increasingly disoriented reporter: the kudos-obsessed past vs. the hardnosed present. Script seems to say that, however much China has changed, its past is forever with it — and must not be forgotten.
Supporting perfs are also on the money, with Miao’s sparky playing of the cop’s wife a small comic delight, and Liu (“Black Cannon Incident”) bringing a sardonic humor to the editor-in-chief. As the woman in the mystery, looker Chen has screen presence but doesn’t really animate her character, which is the least developed in the pic.
Tech credits are slicker than most of Huang’s previous films, but not distractingly so.