You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Duckweed’

Director Han Han's engaging yet sanitized time-traveling crime saga reflects how China is moving ahead so fast that millennials view the recent past with jaded amusement.

Deng Chao, Eddie Peng, Zhao Liying, Zack Gao, Dong Zijian, Zhang Benyu, King Shi-chieh, Li Ronghao, Alice Xiong, Sun Yihan.  (Mandarin dialogue)

The biggest surprise about “Duckweed,” the sophomore feature written and directed by China’s superstar writer-blogger Han Han, is its absolute predictability. A dramedy in which a car racer time-travels to the late ’90s and becomes his estranged father’s partner-in-crime, the film features plot turns and emotional arcs that are all easy to anticipate. What the movie does reflect is how China is moving ahead so fast that millennials are already glancing at the not-so-distant past and its values with jaded amusement and nostalgia. More relaxed and carefree than any of the Lunar New Year blockbusters jostling for the holiday crowd, the film is sprinkled with witty grace notes and is crowd-pleasing without being too ingratiating or idiotic.

Those who admire Han’s pithy prose or the sublime poetry of his debut feature “The Continent” may feel he’s punching below his weight here, but the absence of intellectual posing and heavy messages are what make “Duckweed” go down smoothly among Han’s target post-’90s fan base. The film currently places fourth in domestic box office, grossing about $71.6 million, but fierce competition may prevent it from reaching the $92.7 million target that “The Continent” achieved.

Han, 35, China’s most popular blogger, literary rebel and professional rally driver, has been hailed the definitive voice of his generation. Like his debut feature, autobiographical elements are infused into themes of travel, nonconformism and male-bonding in his latest screenplay. The protagonist, Lang (Deng Chao), is a car racer living in 2022 Shanghai. Upon winning a national rally, he publicly and sarcastically “thanks” his dad, Zheng (Eddie Peng), for his rough upbringing and lack of encouragement. He offers Zheng a ride to show off his driving, but crashes the vehicle.

While hovering between life and death, Lang time-slips to 1998, and lands in an alley where he witnesses a young Zheng’s righteous but foolhardy actions. Together with dimwit Liu Yi (race-car driver Zack Gao) and computer nerd Little Ma (Dong Zijian, “Mountains May Depart”) they pose like younger selves of the aged vigilantes in Guan Hu’s “Mr Six,” upholding honor codes borrowed from ’80s Hong Kong gangster films.

Unlike the battle-scarred heroes they admire onscreen, these young punks strut their stuff inside an idealized, juvenile vacuum. When they take control of a karaoke bar, it’s to ensure the joint remains “pure” so that the “decent girls” won’t be molested by customers. When Zheng extorts protection money from a restaurant, he does maintenance work for the owner in return. Nor does their arch enemy, car smuggler  Luo Li (Zhang Benyu, from hit web series “Surprise”), get up to any real mischief. And the local police chief Jin (King Shih-chieh) keeps benevolent watch over things. Likewise, when Lang discovers that Zheng is dating childhood sweetheart Hua (Zhao Liying, fetching) and not his mom Suzheng, his game plan to break them up stops short of a risque and subversive outcome.

Perhaps this vanilla depiction helped the script get through government censors, but it also defangs the protagonists without providing an authentically engaging background. So when Luo’s boss Zhiqiang (Li Ronghao), a brutal Hong Kong businessman/don turns up and things get abruptly nasty, it’s as tonally jarring as if he walked into the wrong genre. It’s also a far cry from Han’s gentle yet spot-on observations of contempo China’s social ills and his generation’s restive psyche in “The Continent.”

Han cited a slew of Hollywood classics as his influences, like “The Terminator,” “Back to the Future” and “Somewhere in Time.” Actually, his biggest debt here is to Hong Kong dramedy “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father” (1993), as both films depict go-getters learning to appreciate their fathers’ simpatico traits by accidentally falling into their era. Unconcerned with the science of time travel, the drama centers on bridging gaps between two generations in a tragicomic buddy movie.

Han’s improved skill as a director can be seen in his execution of of two driving sequences lensed by DP Cheng Ma, and a bravura slow motion shot of Lang’s car colliding sideways with a speeding train. His storytelling also avoids wordy exposition, yet emotively conveys Lang’s resentment toward his good-for-nothing ex-con dad through a flashback montage of the comatose Lang’s life, played like a silent movie with snarky captions.

China in the late ’90s is depicted as yet having no hard-and-fast rule for success. Audiences with hindsight will no doubt crack up at Zheng’s plan to get rich by stockpiling pagers, or Ma (a stand-in for Tencent and We Chat founder Pony Ma) being written off as a loser. There’s understated poignancy in a scene when Zheng proclaims, “The world won’t change!” and Lang sighs: “The world will change.” The real irony is, the world has never stopped changing and those who don’t wake up to that fact get left behind.

The diverse cast develops a rapport through breezy pacing and glib dialogue, despite the facile roles. Peng offhandedly turns on his boyish appeal but lacks emotional heft. Deng, again proving himself one of China’s most compelling actors, shifts naturally between blasé horseplay and serious intensity.

The film is shot in the southeast provinces of Zhejiang and Suzhou, where the 1,000-year-old city of Changshou offers tranquil scenery of canals, arched bridges, and ancient houses. Most tech credits are fine, except for composer Peng Fei’s mawkish use of Japanese folksongs like Masashi Sada’s “Kanpaku Sengen,” with Chinese lyrics by Han.

The Chinese title means “Riding the Wind and Breaking the Waves.”

Film Review: 'Duckweed'

Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen, Jan. 31, 2017. Running time: 111 MIN. Original Title: "Cheng Feng Po Lang."

Production: (China) A Shanghai Bona Culture and Media Co., Shanghai Tao Piao Piao Movie & TV Culture Co., Shanghai PMF Media Co. (in China), Film Distribution Workshop (in Hong Kong) release of a Shanghai PMF Media Co., Horgos Orange Image Media Co., Shanghai Bona Culture and Media Co., Guomai Culture & Media Co., Beijing Laurel Films Co., Beijing Unimedia Co., Heyi Pictures, Shanghai Tao Piao Piao Movie & TV Culture Co., Horgos PMF Media Co., The Travel Channel presentation of a Shanghai PMF Media Co. production. (International sales: Film Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Producers: Qian Rui, Yu Dong, Lu Jinbo, Fang Li, Fan Jun, Yang Weidong, Li Jie. Executive producers: Qiao Zhi, Lily Jiang, Bai Zhongchun, Liu Kailuo. Co-producers: Chen Minmin, Chen Qingyi, Zhu Yueming, Leng Yi.

Crew: Director/writer: Han Han. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Cheng Ma. Editors, Bai Yuxia, Xiao Yang. Music: Peng Fei.

With: Deng Chao, Eddie Peng, Zhao Liying, Zack Gao, Dong Zijian, Zhang Benyu, King Shi-chieh, Li Ronghao, Alice Xiong, Sun Yihan.  (Mandarin dialogue)

More Film

  • Aquaman 2018

    'Aquaman' Outpacing 'Wonder Woman' in Fandango Pre-Sales

    Pre-sales of “Aquaman,” which opens on Thursday night, are outpacing “Wonder Woman” at the same point in the advance ticket sales cycle on online ticketer Fandango. “Wonder Woman” opened with $103 million domestically during the June 2 to June 4, 2017, weekend on its way to a $412 million North American total for Warner Bros. “Aquaman,” [...]

  • European Union Placeholder

    Europe, Hollywood Hail Landmark E.U. Territorial Licensing Agreement

    Industry organizations and major companies in Europe and Hollywood welcomed Tuesday a high-level European Union agreement that in large part preserves producers’ ability to sell movies and TV shows on an exclusive territory-by-territory basis. Territorial licensing is a financial backbone of the film and TV business in Europe. Recognition of such licensing came last Thursday in [...]

  • Box Office: 'Aquaman,' 'Mary Poppins Returns'

    Box Office: 'Aquaman' Battles 'Mary Poppins Returns' in Crowded Holiday Weekend

    It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and the most competitive time at the multiplexes. This weekend sees two very different heroes vying for the box office crown with “Aquaman” and “Mary Poppins Returns” both eyeing sizable debuts. “Mary Poppins Returns” is getting a head start by opening on Wednesday, though estimates show “Aquaman” [...]

  • John Mulaney's Pitch for 'Spider-Ham' Film

    John Mulaney’s Pitch for ‘Spider-Ham’ Film: ‘‘Spotlight’ ... but Family Friendly'

    There is much to celebrate about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”: groundbreaking inclusion, a ’90s hip-hop soundtrack, Kathryn Hahn’s neurotic villain. But the arguable breakout star of the film is Peter Porker, aka Spider-Ham, voiced by John Mulaney. The prolific comedy writer, stand-up, and rising animation star (see “Big Mouth”) charms as one of the more [...]

  • Penny Marshall Dead

    Hollywood Pays Tribute to 'Trailblazer,' 'Pioneer' Penny Marshall

    Stars across Hollywood are mourning Penny Marshall, who died Monday night at her Hollywood Hills home due to complications from diabetes, Variety has confirmed. The “Laverne & Shirley” star was 75. Marshall first rose to fame playing Laverne DeFazio in the hit ABC series “Laverne & Shirley” before going on to become the first woman to [...]

  • Warner Bros., Bron Strike $100 Million

    Warner Bros., Bron Strike $100 Million Co-Financing Deal

    Warner Bros. and Bron Creative have closed a $100 million co-financing deal for five movies, including Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” and Rebel Wilson’s “Isn’t It Romantic.” The deal, announced on Tuesday, also covers the “Joker” origin film starring Joaquin Phoenix; crime drama “The Kitchen,” with Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish; action-comedy “Superintelligence,” toplined by McCarthy, Bobby [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content