×

Shanghai Film Review: ‘The Fall’

A wryly engrossing, well-observed story of a man floundering in his forties, given a novel spin by its setting in modern, middle-class Shanghai.

Director:
Zhou Lidong
With:
Zhou Lidong, Yan Luyang, Ma Jiaming, Chen Gang, Yang Yang, Lu Daju. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

Running time: 108 MIN.

“I heard a foreign language. Are they foreigners?” one Chinese waitress asks another when they’re out of earshot of the table of men speaking accented English at a business dinner in a Shanghai restaurant. “No,” replies the other. “They’re just pretentious domestic fakes.” This exchange raised a knowing laugh during the Shanghai International Film Festival screening of Zhou Lidong’s “The Fall,” but the film itself is anything but fake, and a few hundred li (a Chinese measure of distance equaling roughly one-third of a mile) away from pretentious. A wry, insightful story of the malaise of being in the middle of everything — lifespan, social class, career success level, a massive metropolis of 25 million people that is a major collision point between Eastern cultural values and Western-style economics — this deceptively rich debut is as outwardly unassuming as they come.

This is especially noteworthy given that it’s not just Zhou’s first time out as a director, a screenwriter and an actor; it’s his first foray into filmmaking at all. Prior to “The Fall,” he was a small business owner, much like the character he plays, experience which lends unmistakably authentic depth to the ostensibly slight, nothing-much-happens story. Where other first-timer triple-threats are often unable to purge their creations of egocentricity, Zhou’s film seems to spring from the very opposite impulse. “The Fall” is a gentle skewering of male midlife dramatics; it is about the inflated expectations of youth hitting the potholes of midlife and developing a slow puncture. And perhaps, about becoming the better person for it.

Firmly ensconced in his forties and prone to staring dumbly at the empty car space where he thought he’d parked, Lin (Zhou Lidong) runs a small engineering firm that is being stonewalled on payment by a big client. He is estranged but on civil terms with his wife, who lives abroad. He shares his well-appointed apartment with his teenage son who is studying for his college entrance exam, and about to decamp to the States himself. Lin is casually dating the pretty, younger Dingzi (Yan Luyang) though perhaps to her, their affair is not so casual. Sometimes, strange things do still happen to him, like a late-night screech and thuddunk at his office window which Zhou interprets as a large bird flying kamikaze-style into the window. An omen perhaps? But of what? And what in this resolutely unromantic, rational man’s humdrum existence might make him worthy of anything as dramatic as a portent?

Although his company is struggling — and there’s a light sting of satire in the observation of the brinkmanship of excessive, insincere politeness that characterizes the actually quite nasty meetings between him and company rep Mr. Song (Lu Daju) — Lin is financially comfortable enough. His son is a good-looking, responsible kid who gets on well with his dad. He has a circle of college buddies with whom he can get drunk regularly. And Lin is even getting it together to quit smoking and start working out more. By most standards, his life is moderately successful.

But, creating a subtly melancholic undertow, Zhou’s script homes in on the droll, exasperating details of his everyday routine, the daily disappointments of angle-poise lamps that won’t stay put, supermarket apples with stickers strategically covering their black spots, bathrooms that are never stocked with toilet paper and an ongoing war of attrition over premium parking spaces. With the lightest of touches (carried beautifully by Zhou’s underplaying) even moments of potentially heavy symbolism feel unforced: Lin’s indecisiveness and the wider context of being trapped between West and East is funneled into a humorous little vignette involving two kitschy ornaments — a praying alabaster angel and a dark brown, brassy dragon — that vie for vigil status in the hall.

A certain blandness to the filmmaking is really the only thing marring an otherwise very well-achieved debut. Lin Yutang’s restrained cinematography can feel a bit generic at times, so that it takes a while to even notice how much there is going on within the anodyne visuals. With that handicap, it’s heartening that “The Fall” won the Netpac award at the Warsaw Film Festival, as it could use a profile boost to stand out in a landscape stacked with showier regional titles. And it deserves to be discovered, not just because the film’s wistful wit and wisdom is ample reward for 108 minutes of your own quickly-passing life. But also because “The Fall” is a type of cinema — a middle-class, urban dramedy playing out in a plangent minor key — that we do not see coming out of China very much, despite the millions of people to whose experience it directly speaks, and the many more worldwide who can recognize themselves in Zhou’s everyman, park their preconceptions about the otherness of Chinese society at the curb, and then forget where they left the car.

Popular on Variety

Shanghai Film Review: 'The Fall'

Reviewed at Shanghai Film Festival, June 20, 2019. (Also in Warsaw Film Festival.) Running time: 108 MIN.

Production: (China) An Atro Media, Bochean Films presentation of a Bochean Films production. (Int'l sales: Oriental Int'l Media, Hong Kong.) Producers: Lu Daju, Zhou Lidong. Executive producer: Chow Keung.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Zhou Lidong. Camera (color, widescreen): Lin Yutang. Editor: Yang Xiao. Music: O'Young Christopher Michael.

With: Zhou Lidong, Yan Luyang, Ma Jiaming, Chen Gang, Yang Yang, Lu Daju. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

More Film

  • The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos

    Korea: 'The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos’ Rules Chuseok Holiday Box Office

    Local films dominated cinemagoing in South Korea over the 4-day Chuseok holiday weekend, traditionally one of the year’s busiest periods. The winner was “The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos.” Opening on Wednesday, the CJ Entertainment release earned $20.2 million from 1.97 million admissions over five days. A film adaptation of CJ E&M’s 2014 hit TV [...]

  • Disco

    New Europe Sells Toronto and San Sebastian Film 'Disco' to Several Territories (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jan Naszewski’s New Europe Film Sales has signed several distribution deals on “Disco,” which had its world premiere in Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery section and makes its European premiere in San Sebastian’s New Directors competition. The film has been picked up by Palace for Australia and New Zealand, Artcam for Czech Republic and Slovakia, Kino [...]

  • "Jade Dynasty" in front at the

    China Box Office: 'Jade Dynasty' in Front Ahead of Mixed Competition

    With “Jade Dynasty” out front, Chinese action and Asian animation films led the way at the China box office over the past weekend, while the few American titles in play have failed to attract many moviegoers. Chinese action fantasy “Jade Dynasty” led the weekend box office in its debut with $38.1 million, figures from consultancy [...]

  • The Painted Bird

    Venice Competition Film 'The Painted Bird' Is Czech Entry in Oscar Race

    Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird,” which world premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the main competition and also played at the Toronto Film Festival in Special Presentations, has been selected as the Czech Republic’s entry for the 92nd Academy Awards in the international feature film category. The pic follows the journey of an unnamed [...]

  • Pakistan Picks Freshman Effort 'Laal Kabootar'

    Pakistan Picks Freshman Effort 'Laal Kabootar' as Its Oscar Entry

    Pakistan’s Academy Selection Committee has chosen “Laal Kabootar” as its candidate for the Oscars’ international feature film category. Directed by first-time helmer Kamal Khan, the gangland thriller set in Karachi’s underbelly follows the events that transpire when a woman in search of her husband’s killer is thrown together with a cab driver and petty criminal [...]

  • Atlantis

    Toronto Film Review: 'Atlantis'

    “It took you 10 years to cleanse this region of Soviet propaganda and myths,” says one character to another in “Atlantis,” going on to suggest that the devastation now left behind may never be “cleansed” at all. A strikingly bleak vision of a near future in which Ukraine has won its war with Russia but [...]

  • Beyonce Knowles'The Lion King' film premiere,

    ABC Announces Behind-the-Scenes Special for Beyoncé's 'Lion King' LP

    ABC has announced a new behind-the-scenes look into the making of Beyoncé’s “The Lion King: The Gift” LP, which is set to air September 16 on ABC at 10 p.m. EST. Titled “Beyoncé Presents: Making the Gift,” the new hour-long special will allow viewers to “experience the process” behind the “Lion King” companion album, according [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content