Quotidian urban life in contempo China is shown with quiet irony and warm compassion in “Lucky Dog,” an engaging, character-driven dramedy by first-time writer-director Zhang Meng. Tale of a day-or-so in the life of a just-retired working-class stiff is a splendid showcase for the dry humor of well-known comedian Fan Wei, who essayed a similar, though darker, role in “The Parking Attendant in July” (2003). Skedded for Mainland release next February, “Dog” looks likely to wag festival auds’ tails and pick up some tube deals in Europe.
After 40 years’ loyal service on the railroad as a mechanical engineer, Wang Kangmei (Fan) has retired. Though his wife (Cheng Shubo) is in hospital and his income is now a fraction of what it was, Wang remains resolutely optimistic.
A modern version of Lu Xun’s classic Chinese innocent Ah Q, Wang has never questioned any aspect of his life or his country’s history. He reads the official papers, listens to radio news programs and goes about his daily routine with bluff confidence. And he’s determined to find some kind of work, deeming himself still employable at age 55.
Majority of the pic is set during the following day, as Wang moves around the city, meeting various people. Though the structure is basically episodic, the film never lingers too long on any one vignette, and the tight editing by Ma Yanyan and helmer Zhang’s ear for natural dialogue make for a gently flowing portrait, not only of Wang himself, but of a whole human landscape in an average, ramshackle town in northeast China. (Pic shot in Ji’an, in Jilin province.)
First up, Wang has his fortune told by a woman with a roadside computer (Liang Shuang); next, he visits a shoeshine lady (Xiang Yan); then, he takes over for a while from a pedicabber (Guan Xiaoping) whose rig is fitted with a stereo music center; and finally, he tries auditioning for a local opera troupe.
Each of these encounters ends badly, with Wang sometimes not even realizing it’s ended badly. But he carries on, finally visiting his infirm father (Zhao Naixun), who secretly worries about him. Day is also peppered with trips to his wife’s bedside.
In other hands, the story could have ended up as a bleak, downbeat trudge, but the combination of Zhang’s quizzical eye and Fan’s full-of-life perf make pic a humanistic delight. Plenty of Chinese pics have critiqued the country’s economic dash to market, but none has done it in such an undoctrinaire way.
Zhang’s script, written four years ago, was inspired by the life of his uncle. Fan committed to starring in it just before making “Parking Attendant,” but pic only started shooting in spring 2006, following partial financing by South Korean producer Choi Kwang-suk. Direction is as natural as the perfs, helped by South Korean d.p. Gu Jae-mo’s discreetly pointed lensing. Wang Sa’s triumphant military band music adds a further level of irony.
Chinese title is a saying that “people with big ears have lots of luck.”