Venice Film Review: ‘Mr. Six’

In this unusually fight-skittish action-movie scenario, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang plays a reformed criminal struck by how much the codes of behavior have changed when his son is kidnapped.

Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Hanyu, Xu Qing, Li Yefeng, Kris Wu, Liu Hua, Liang Jing.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4701702/

“Kids these days,” sighs the lead character in “Mr. Six,” sounding like the grizzled hero in a late-career Clint Eastwood movie. Now well into his fifties, the neighborhood peacekeeper — played with stoical cool by China’s most popular film director, Feng Xiaogang — realizes just how little Beijing’s younger generation respects the old ways after confronting the gangsters who snatched his son. Constructed as the long, inward-gazing buildup to an epic showdown on a frozen lake, Guan Hu’s genre-subverting drama could just as easily be an elegy for a disappearing style of filmmaking — one that acknowledges the country’s obsession with flashy, street-racing culture, while determined to make a more substantive impact on a box office dominated by “Furious 7.”

Though executed with the professional heft of a big-studio production — which indeed it is, backed by Sino heavyweight Huayi Brothers — “Mr. Six” deliberately withholds many of the sensational payoffs auds might expect from the film’s action-oriented premise (one noisy back-alley fight scene takes place almost entirely off-camera, for example, only to end with Mr. Six lying knocked out in the snow). Given how blatantly local trailers are misrepresenting the movie, it’s a good thing that “Mr. Six” is starting its journey on the international festival circuit (the Venice closer is next Toronto-bound), which should build credibility in anticipation of its Christmas Eve domestic bow.

Hardly your conventional good guy, Mr. Six was a rebellious hoodlum back in his youth as well, though unlike the disrespectful punks running the streets today, he has always subscribed to the Wanzhu code. In keeping with that system, Mr. Six serves as a sort of godfather to his district, Houtai, watching over the residents of the old-fashioned hutong alleys — which Guan illustrates in a series of character-defining early scenes, wherein cops and lawbreakers alike pay him respect. Though the character is so impassive nearly any actor could have played the role, Guan shoots Feng in such a way that Mr. Six seems imposing, standing his ground like Charles Bronson, his close-shaved head and unflappable expression framed by a worn leather jacket.

The film spends its opening reel in awe of the character, seemingly in no hurry for the plot to kick in. Once it does, our minds immediately start racing to assumptions. After learning that his son Bobby (Li Yifeng) has been taken prisoner by Kris (Kris Wu), the platinum-coiffed son of a corrupt politician, will Mr. Six make like George C. Scott in “Hardcore” and steamroll his way to justice?

For a few short scenes, it looks like that could be his intention (Mr. Six tracks Kris down by twisting a bike lock around one of his stooges’ necks and speeding across Beijing in a nitro-boosted SUV), although there’s a code of ethics to consider, and Bobby brought this situation upon himself: Mr. Six’s son crossed the line by stealing Kris’ g.f. and then scratching his million-dollar Enzo Ferrari, and now all involved must come to an honorable resolution — one that won’t be satisfied by the paltry 2,000 yuan (about $300) Mr. Six offers to pay for the damages.

Kris counters by demanding 100,000 yuan, and though Mr. Six humbly tries to honor that sum, showing up three days (and one long TKTK montage) later with the cash in hand, the insolent rich kid ups the ransom to half the Ferrari’s sticker price, giving Mr. Six no choice but to propose a fight. “We play by Beijing rules,” he says, visibly reluctant to go back to using violence to settle his problems (having just reprimanded a police officer for unnecessarily slapping around an old friend a half-hour earlier): Both sides will round up as much muscle as they can, showing up one week later behind Beijing’s Summer Palace to work it out by force.

In another kind of movie, that week would fly by and the duel would become the film’s focus (at least half the footage in the aforementioned trailer comes from this finale, or else from scenes in which he readies a samurai blade we never get to see him use). Though hip enough, as a hospital-side cameo by pop idols TF Boys indicates, Guan would rather explore Mr. Six’s state of mind as he psyches himself up for the skirmish. And so the overlong film lingers on bonding scenes between this forlorn father and his estranged son, as well as conversations with sometime-lover Chatterbox (“Looper’s” Xu Qing), ready-to-rumble associate Scrapper (Zhang Hanyu) and even Kris himself, in which the suddenly philosophical old loner has the chance to express his regrets about the world’s shifting values.

Scored to a beautiful, introspection-oriented saxophone score, “Mr. Six” surprises by attempting to delve behind Feng’s sometime-inscrutable facade, rather than pushing its leading man toward action. Though there are traces of Eastwood’s surly “Gran Torino” character here, the tone is more in sync with that quiet scene from “In the Line of Fire” in which the actor, playing a psyche-scarred secret service agent, works out his blues at the piano of a hotel bar. That could explain why “Mr. Six’s” most euphoric moment occurs not on the climactic battlefield, but downtown, watching an ostrich sprint its way through traffic. A surreal image like that sticks with you, while anyone can imagine the fight that follows.

Venice Film Review: 'Mr. Six'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (closer), Sept. 8, 2015. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 135 MIN. (Original title: “Lao pao er”)

Production: (China) A Huayi Brothers, Taihe Film Investment production. Produced by Wang Zhonglei. Executive producer, Zhu Wenjiu.

Crew: Directed by Guan Hu. Screenplay, Hu, Dong Runnian. Camera (color, widescreen), Luo Pan; editor, Zhang Wen; music, Dou Peng; production designer, Yang Haoyu; sound supervisor, Zhao Suchen; action choreographer, Bruce Law Laiyin.

With: Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Hanyu, Xu Qing, Li Yefeng, Kris Wu, Liu Hua, Liang Jing.

More Film

  • Joker movie

    With 'Ad Astra,' 'Joker' Likely, Venice Set for Strong Showing by U.S., Bolstered by Streamers

    Brad Pitt space odyssey “Ad Astra,” Noah Baumbach’s untitled new project, “Joker” with Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts,” Fernando Meirelles’ “The Pope,” the new “Rambo” installment, and heist thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” starring Mick Jagger as a reclusive art dealer, all look bound for the Venice Film Festival, sources tell Variety. The fest [...]

  • CGV's Massive Imax Screen Order Shows

    CGV's Massive Imax Screen Order Shows Optimism for Chinese Exhibition

    Korean cinema giant CGV has signed a deal with Imax to install a further 40 giant screens in movie theaters in China. The deal suggests that China’s multiplex building boom still has some way to run, and that at least one Korean company is still willing to invest in China, despite China’s currently boycott of [...]

  • BAFTA headquarters at 195 Piccadilly, London

    BAFTA Undertakes Major Renovation of Its London Headquarters

    BAFTA has undertaken a major renovation of its London headquarters that will double the building’s capacity and increase space devoted to the British academy’s programs to promote skills training and new talent. Work has already begun on the $31 million overhaul, which is expected to take two years. In the interim, BAFTA will relocate its [...]

  • Andhadhun

    Booming Digital Lifts Eros Indian Film Distribution Giant

    Eros International, India’s largest and most controversial film distributor, says that its digital revenues now outstrip conventional theatrical and syndication revenues. Its Eros Now streaming platform claims 18.8 million paying subscribers. The New York-listed company reported annual results that were distorted by multiple adjustments to presentation. Reported revenues in the year to end of March [...]

  • The Eight Hundred (The 800)

    Second Huayi Brothers Film Is Canceled as Company's Losses Mount

    Still reeling from the cancellation of the theatrical release of its blockbuster “The Eight Hundred,” production studio Huayi Brothers has been hit with another setback: Its comedy “The Last Wish” has also been quietly pulled from China’s summer lineup. Both films have fallen afoul of China’s increasingly heavy-handed censors. The unwelcome development comes as Huayi [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content