More Than Black and White

in 53rd Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

by Holger Römers

The 53rd Golden Horse Award show held quite a few surprises in store. Chief among them was the prize for best feature film going to Chinese first-time director Zhang Dalei, whose The Summer is Gone edged out favoured local hero Midi Z’s The Road to Mandalay as well as I Am Not Madame Bovary by Feng Xiaogang (who could take comfort, though, in his award for best director). Chinese performer Fan Wei being honoured as best leading actor might not have been as big a surprise, but it was still somewhat unexpected, given the competition of Hong Kong veterans Jacky Cheung and Tony Leung Ka-fai, among others. Fan received the award for his nuanced work in Mr. No Problem whose director Mei Feng in turn, together with co-author Huang Shi, won the award for best adapted screenplay.

Based on a novella by famous writer Lao She, Mr. No Problem is set in rural China during the second Sino-Japanese War. The plot focuses on the travails of mild-mannered, middle-aged Ding, who as an estate manager seems to be a complete failure. The big farm he is in charge of operates at a continuing loss, which Ding tries to paper over by currying favour with the absentee landlords’ wives and daughters. Ultimately, he is demoted when the landlords bring in a young, ambitious University graduate, Qin, who immediately sets out to put scientific management methods in place. Ding seems to go along with Qin’s modernizing changes, but at the same time he allows a rakish would-be artist to incite the workers against their new boss.

On many levels that scenario reads as a witty satire on modernization and its discontents. While Lao She alluded to contemporaneous developments, this adaptation might just as well be taken to refer to certain aspects of today’s China. And some of Mr. No Problem’s unobtrusive lessons undoubtedly apply to global phenomena. In any case, the film’s beauty lies in its ambiguities. While his scientific methods seem to work, stiff technocrat Qin appears to be completely insensitive to anybody else’s concerns, including those of his own well- meaning wife. On the other hand, there is little doubt that Ding has his own interests in mind when he doles out gifts and favours, but he also comes across as genuinely friendly. In short, one cannot tell where exactly the filmmaker’s sympathies lie and neither can the audience unreservedly side with any of the main characters.

Harking back to a Bazinian tradition of deep staging and at certain moments referencing mid- 1980s Hou Hsiao-hsien in particular, Mei relies on a static camera to capture the goings-on mostly in detached long shots. This style has a slight distancing effect that makes the farcical moments resonate as much as the dramatic ones. Zhu Jingjing’s rich black-and- white cinematography is all the more beautiful, meanwhile, because there is so much more to Mei and Huang’s script than just black and white.

Edited by Lesley Chow