A morose drama that never quite lives up to the promise of its moody, noirish atmosphere, Wang Qi’s “The Bargain” does at least look the part of the gritty, crime-shaded sprawling urban saga. But however tactile and textured the photography, and however pleasurable the rendering of the city’s outskirts as a kind of gloomy nocturnal limbo, over a near two-hour runtime, the overriding impression of is of too little actual substance spread thinly across this deserted, forbidding nighttime streetscape, and of lives of quiet desperation that could stand to be a portrayed a bit more loudly.
Shifting its point of view between three protagonists who are all related to each other is a persuasive idea that ought to yield a prismatic, intergenerational portrait of the low-level dissatisfactions and disillusionments rife within this broken, lower-middle class Shanghainese family. Instead the split focus has the tendency to kill whatever momentum any one storyline may have built up when it switches to the next. Not that there’s too much of that. The screenplay, written by Yang Xin Yang, is at such pains to keep things in a naturalist, non-melodramatic register that it will always skew towards the underpowered rather than the overstated, an admirable instinct but perhaps one indulged too far here.
At first, however, a knotty premise is set up as Liu (Jiang Qi Ming), a round-faced bald-headed businessman who can at times resemble a particularly cherubic Buddha, is trying to offload his failing travel agency onto a couple of sharp-eyed new buyers. They politely decline the opportunity, and Liu returns dejectedly to work to the news that one of his drivers has been found deep in a coma in his car parked on Liu’s lot overnight. The man is brought to hospital, but when his vegetative state appears not to be improving, his relatives arrive to demand that Liu, as his employer at the time of his affliction, shoulder the financial responsibility not only for his medical care but for the loss of income that his wife and children will now suffer.
Liu holds out for a time, resisting the pressure to buy the man’s family off — a situation whose financial stakes the film makes clearer than its moral stakes, as it’s never thoroughly explained to what extent Liu actually feels himself responsible for the man’s plight, and Jiang’s genial but ambivalent performance doesn’t give us much access to the character’s deeper recesses.
Liu’s son Weiguo (Zhang Qi), a too-cool-for-school type with a messy haircut and a surly attitude, is another thorn in his side. As is becoming increasingly de rigueur for the kids of middle-class Chinese parents who aspire to upward social mobility, Weiguo went to college in America, though not, as he’s quick to point out at an interview arranged by his mother, to “one of the good ones.” Ill at ease among his fellow candidates for the job, the unambitious, sullen Weiguo skips out before he’s even been called in and instead drifts aimlessly toward the fringes of his Dad’s industry, falling in with a shady bunch of illegal, off-the-books drivers who provide an entree into Shanghai’s petty crime netherworld.
This is all to the increasing frustration of Weiguo’s mother, and Liu’s estranged ex-wife Tao (Zhang Lu). A schoolteacher who — also against the rules — provides evening tutoring sessions to earn a little extra cash, Tao is also in a relationship with a commitment-phobic new guy, but mostly appears to live for her son, for which in true spoiled only-child fashion, Weiguo repays her with nothing but sulky scorn. For all three of these disaffected characters, the depressingly transactional nature of all their interactions is underlined, as each deals in their own way with an alienating environment in which the only way to get ahead appears to be work some sort of grift.
Ashizawa Akiko’s dense, rich cinematography is a strong asset, as are the uniformly solid performances, even if the actors must operate in a register so restrained it can feel like every second sparse line of dialogue is a muted mumble. And the rhythms set up by Echo Gong’s editing could certainly be tighter and pacier. Still, as a polished, confident technical feat, Wang’s third film (after “Caochang” and “Autumn Leaves”) is impressive, though if one of “The Bargain’s” many bargains is that which is struck with the audience, there’s just not quite enough here that’s illuminating enough to make us feel like we got the better end of the deal.