The lives of a foreman, a doctor and a high school prof touch tangentially during the frantic run-up to Chinese New Year in “The End of Year,” a wry multicharacter ensembler that builds into an involving, very human portrait of everyday life in contempo Beijing. Wang Jing’s documentary background gives his sophomore feature a realistic edge beneath the lightly comic tone, but the well-constructed script and simpatico performances are equal partners in pic’s success. With no big stars, New Year release earned a modest but profitable $700,000 locally, and well deserves sidebar slots in international fests.
With a now highly mobile population on the mainland, the 40 days around Chinese New Year see one of the biggest temporary migrations on the planet — 400 million people in 2006, per end title — as city dwellers visit their hometowns and families.
One city dweller looking forward to seeing his native village in Hefei is middle-aged migrant worker Zhang Guodong (Chen Gang), who runs a raggedy team of handymen fitting out an apartment for a sly travel agent (Liu Zhongping).
After Zhang accidentally causes elderly prof Bai (Feng Dinghong) to have a heart attack and rushes him to hospital, Zhang ends up agreeing to fix the mess other workers have made to Bai’s apartment. Meanwhile, in the same hospital, cardiovascular surgeon Li Jialiang (Zhang Tong) is being pursued by angry relatives who blame him for a recent death.
As the countdown to New Year starts, Zhang’s life becomes ever more chaotic. In one of pic’s funniest sequences, when the travel agent tries to renege on their deal, Zhang and his team stage a demo to shame him in public. Later, when Zhang and his trashy g.f., Xiao Mei (Zeng Yunzen), are caught canoodling in Bai’s empty apartment, the kindly prof has another heart attack, and Zhang has to front the hospital deposit.
Various strands gradually entwine as Bai and Li meet in the hospital, and Li’s ambitious wife (Wang Chang’e), a nurse, tries to parlay a place in the prof’s high school for her teen son. Meanwhile, both Zhang and Li join the scramble for New Year train tickets.
General background of everyone trying to earn a buck, either honestly or otherwise, is hardly new in contempo mainland cinema. What’s fresh about the immensely detailed script, co-written by Massway producer Xie Xiaodong, is that the characters learn from their own mistakes during the course of the movie rather than receiving payback or lectures at the end. Li’s story, of a man caught in a less than ideal marriage and distanced from his teen son (Xu Ke), develops especially movingly, and provides pic’s de facto resolution.
Wealth of smaller roles — from Zhang’s work gang to Bai’s school staff and his elderly fellow patient (Wang Mingzhi) — blend smoothly into the ensemble, making pic much more than just a three-hander. Sorting out exactly who’s who is occasionally difficult in the early stages, and restless, handheld style looks initially to become wearing; but as the characters build, and a warmly inclusive atmosphere develops, visual style fits. English subtitles could be improved for clarity.