Slippery and surprising, full of odd details and insights, and leaching significant visual and thematic texture from its unusual setting, Liang Ming’s “Wisdom Tooth” must be one of the year’s most remarkable debuts. Set in a depressed Chinese fishing town close to the Korean border during the first snow flurries of winter, the film is partly a crime thriller, partly a distinctly European-flavored relationship drama, but wholly a knotty, complex character portrait of a young woman taking her tentative first steps toward independence. The result feels like a potent hybrid of the Chinese social realist tradition as exemplified by Jia Zhangke and the Korean independent scene of which the films of Lee Chang-dong are at the forefront.
Guxi (a terrifically ambivalent Xingchen Lyu) has a toothache. She complains about it to her half-brother Guliang (Wu Xiaoliang), with whom she has a relationship close enough for him to sponge down her back during trips to the local bathhouse. But the pain from a new back molar cutting through is the most minor of the problems they face. Guxi’s job as a maid in the hotel owned by local bigwig Boss Jiang (Tao Hai) is under threat due to her undocumented status as a resident of the area, and Guliang’s casual fish trade business is put on hiatus when an offshore oil spill contaminates the supply.
Guliang is not above scrubbing down the fish to make them look less sickly, but when it’s pointed out that he could get in real trouble if his wares end up poisoning people, he reluctantly gives in, takes a new job as a dockyard security guard. Falling in with the shady plans of his amiable but bumbling, shaggy-headed best friend Dongzi (Wang Weishen), he meets Qingchang (Wang Jiajia), a glamorous young woman who has recently returned to live with her mob-affiliated father after a stint in South Korea. As Guliang falls for her, the siblings’ ménage expands to make room for three.
Guxi’s jealousy begins to ice over her relationship with her brother, just as the ground itself starts to freeze and winter really begins to bite, giving DP He Shan’s intelligent, understated handheld camera some of its most bleakly compelling vistas, in stark contrast to the warm, steamy interiors of the kitschy bars and shabby living spaces where the siblings hang out. But it’s unclear which of the new couple is the object of Guxi’s envy: Her borderline romantic covetousness of her brother is well established, but there is also an erotic component to her thwarted friendship with Qingchang, which gives the film’s sexual politics an unexpected frisson of queerness.
All of these warring impulses and tangled intentions might be overload if, as screenwriter and director, Liang Ming were even a little less invested in creating such real, dimensional characters, whose idiosyncratic behaviors and quirks are knitted into the fabric of every scene. Guliang bites on a failing battery to get it to work again. Guxi crushes garlic with a chopstick, sulkily peels a tangerine and falls asleep, mouth open and drooling, on the hotel bed she’s supposed to be making. These moments are at least illuminating, and sometimes crucial to the tidal pull of the film’s faintly noirish narrative: The dictaphone Guxi carries around becomes a crucial plot point in the (admittedly less successful) secondary strand about a fisherman found dead on his boat.
It’s rare to come across a coming-of-age story — because this, finally, is really what “Wisdom Tooth” is — that tracks the pivot point of change for its central character with such precision, noting Guxi’s reversals and prevarications as she tries to work out the kind of person she is going to be in the world. And though there have been some recent comparable examples (such as Zhai Yixiang’s “Mosaic Portrait” and Derek Tsang’s indie sensation “Better Days”), it is rarer still to find this kind of minutely individualistic portraiture in the context of a Chinese film, and a debut at that. But heralded by the modern choirs that sometimes lend an unearthly aspect to Ding Ke’s excellent, sensitive scoring, “Wisdom Tooth” undoubtedly marks Liang Ming’s fully-formed arrival on the Chinese independent cinema scene, a journey he apparently completed without any of his fascinatingly offbeat heroine’s symbolically literal teething problems.