The impressive third feature by Chinese filmmaker Li Xiaofeng following “Ash” and “Nezha,” “Back to the Wharf” examines the devastating impact of a violent act. Centered on a guilt-wracked 33-year-old man returning to the seaside hometown he fled 15 years prior, this brooding drama about morality and family honor is set against the backdrop of sweeping economic change in China during the ’90s and early 21st century. After debuting at Shanghai in June, “Wharf” opened domestically in November and performed respectably against patriotic blockbusters “The Sacrifice” and “My People, My Homeland.” Festival programmers and VOD buyers should give it a look.
The son of a midlevel official in a coastal fishing town, Song Hao (Zhou Zhengjie) is a bright student who’s robbed of the automatic college place he has rightfully earned. His position has been given to close friend Li Tang (Gao Yuhang), the son of powerful local mayor Li Weiguo (Jin Hui). In a feeble attempt to dress up his unethical decision as some kind of long-term benefit for the school, Song Hao’s headmaster (Zhou Jianya) tells the boy, “I prioritize the collective over the individual.”
Things go from bad to catastrophic in the first of many scenes taking place in pelting rain and howling wind that serve as visual metaphors for the protagonist’s sorrows and struggles. Intending to visit Li Tang’s upmarket home, Song Hao accidentally enters the wrong house and is mistaken for a burglar. In the confusion, Song Hao stabs owner Wan Yuliang (Zhao Longhao), who later dies. With his father Song Jianhui (Wang Yanhui) also implicated in this crime, which could ruin his career and destroy the family’s reputation, Song Hao flees to faraway Guangzhou, where he takes a lowly job in a masonry factory. Unbeknownst to father and son, Li Tang is aware of their transgressions and has chosen to remain silent.
With that key piece of information fresh in viewers’ minds, the story fast-forwards 15 years to 2007. Crushing guilt and despair are etched into the stony face of Song Hao (now played in a finely controlled performance by Zhang Yu, “Dying to Survive”). After all this time away, the morose Song Hao has been called home for the funeral of his mother (Chen Jin).
Before switching back to crime movie mode, Li and co-writer Yu Xin give plenty of breathing space for Sang Ho to re-establish a relationship with his now-powerful father, and to make an intriguing connection with Wan Xiaoning (Deng Enxi), the troubled teenage daughter of his accidental victim. He also gets a shot at something resembling romance with old school friend Pan Xiaoshuang (Song Jia, “The Master’” 2016). The excellent Song is funny and touching as the spirited, unmarried “leftover woman” who sings up a storm at a karaoke restaurant and makes no secret of her plan to marry Song Hao, which is eventually successful.
But such light and optimistic moments are far outweighed by the ticking time-bomb of Song Hao’s inevitable reunion with Li Tang (Lee Hong-Chi). In stark contrast to the decent and deeply regretful Song Hao, Li has become a shady property developer whose flashy haircut, loud purple suit and conspicuous splashing of cash embody the worst aspects of the brash, go-getting capitalist spirit in China’s new economy.
Though it spends a little too long showing Li’s counterfeit delight at his old friend’s unexpected return, the story gets firmly back on track when the welcoming smile turns to a sinister snarl and his vicious plan to blackmail Song Hao and his father is revealed.
Based on several true crime stories, “Back to the Wharf” never suggests there’s anything wrong with economic change and new opportunities. Its clear message is that ethics, morality and family honor must not be sidelined in the process. These points are powerfully enforced in the film’s bleak but entirely appropriate finale.
Well paced and moodily shot by DP Piao Songri, the film is technically excellent though let down a little by the score’s overuse of mournful trumpet solos.