A slice of social realism about the sexual frustrations of elderly men in rural China, the deceptively unsophisticated “Single Man” is hilarious and appalling by turns, but it always feels true. This vibrant, rollicking tale from debuting helmer Hao Jie uses people from the writer-director’s own community, allowing warmth, humanity and even a little pain to come shining through. Energy, freshness and directness helped to make this item an unlikely crowd-pleaser at San Sebastian, and “Man” should find further fest partners.
Hard-smoking Old Yang (Yang Zhenjun), Bighead Liang (Liang Youzhong), Gu Lin (Du Tianguang) and Liu Ruan (Liang Chunying) regularly meet on a sunny hillside to sit, chat and remember. Early flashbacks, somewhat clumsily implemented, show each of them as adolescents at the beginning of their lovelives.
Many years later, Old Yang farms watermelons and receives sexual favors from his former lover, Er Yatou (Wang Suzhen), now the village head’s wife, in exchange for part of his pension, which she uses to put her son through college. When a girl from Sichuan (Ye Lan) is offered for sale by her parents, Old Yang buys her, but young Qiaosan (Hang Zhipeng) also likes her.
Script doesn’t particularly frown upon the practice of buying and selling people, which is presented as a real consequence of poverty in rural China. But Western auds will be surprised by the laissez-faire, non-judgmental way prostitution and human trafficking are handled.
Pic features some contextual scenes away from the romantic struggles of Old Yang. The most compelling is a short sequence, which might have been drawn from a docu, in which he is beaten up by watermelon sellers. Footage of local fiestas, during which incredibly vulgar traditional songs are belted out, also have a raucous appeal, and have led to problems with local censors. However, time is also devoted to moments of quiet, melancholy reflection.
Thesps are non-pros, some of them the helmer’s family members, most of whom seem to be basically playing themselves. (The verbal and physical energy of the charismatic Yang Zhenjun has to be seen to be believed.) Hao’s manifest love and respect for them makes a difference. Despite all the radically non-PC humor, pic also reps a dark vision of the future: It is estimated that China will have up to 40 million more men than women by 2020.