“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.