The name Jiajia Zhang may not ring a bell, but don't be mistaken. This might be Zhang's first feature film, Bai Du Ren [See You Tomorrow] is no mere freshman effort. This is a Wong Kar-wai backed film made to celebrate the 25th birthday of Wong's Jet Tone production company. A lush and lavish project that aims to wow and spares no effort in doing so. Wong Kar-wai may never direct a comedy of his own, but if you ever wondered what that would look like, look no further.
Jiajia Zhang isn't a complete nobody though. He made name as a writer and earned screenplay credits for Wuershan's Dao Jian Xiao. He also wrote the short story this film was based upon and shares writing credits with Wong Kar-wai. Even so, that alone doesn't score you a multi-star cast, two top notch cinematographers and all the promotional backing you could wish for. Wong Kar-wai acted as producer for this film and at times it's difficult to assess just exactly how far his influence reached. Not that I want to take away from Zhang's accomplishments here, he is after all still credited as the sole director, but it's quite clear he got some help along the way.
Bai Du Ren is by and large a comedy, but it's far from a simple genre effort. It's as much an ode to classic Hong Kong comedy (with extreme over-acting and overly cheesy effects) as it is a modern comedy about more contemporary problems. There are some funny pop references (hello King of Fighters), but also nods to some of the films Jet Tone produced along the way. All of that is wrapped up in an original concept with a somewhat surprising thread of solid drama running underneath, resulting in a film that feels fresh and unique.
The film follows Chen Mo, a successful club owner who works as a "ferryman", a person who helps lost cases deal with their grief. He runs his club with three friends, each of them dealing with their own set of problems. But Mo becomes infatuated by Xiao Yu, his next door neighbor. Yu in her turn is smitten by Ma Li, her childhood idol. After a failed engagement, Ma Li is stuck in rut and in order to move his life (and career) along, Mo decides to become Yu's mentor, teaching her everything he knows.
Wong is renowned for his visual finesse and boy did he coach Zhang. The film is one big explosion of color, not a single frame looks dull or lifeless, everything from camera work to editing and lighting is leveraged to make the film look as dashing and alive as possible. It's a true visual spectacle, but only if you can handle its overly polished look. The film eschews any form of natural flair, going for a crafted and manufactured look instead. I'm sure it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it's by far one of the best-looking films I've seen in a while.
The soundtrack too in instilled with Wong's trademark touches. Chinese films tend to be quite conservative when it comes to integration of music, not quite so here. It's not a completely erratic mix of styles and genres, but when you suddenly hear a jazzy Spanish-language song pass by you know this isn't just any run of the mill Chinese film. Famed composer Nathaniel Méhaly was summoned to work on the soundtrack, a familiar name as Méchaly also worked on Wong's Yi Dai Zong Shi, only further underlining Wong's influence.
And then there's the stellar list of actors of course, a star-studded cast no first-time director could ever hope to afford by himself. Leading the pack is Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, assisted by Takeshi Kaneshiro, Eason Chan and Angelababy. Another notable performance comes from Sandrine Pinna, who is well on her way to become one of Taiwan's more recognizable faces. A big A-list cast is not always a successful match for a comedy like this, but compared to most A-list actors from other countries Chinese actors seem less worried about making a fool of themselves. Even celebrated actors like Tony Leung (The Eagle Shooting Heroes) or Takeshi Kaneshiro (who reprises Leung's lip-joke here) show no shame when they're asked to wear weird prosthetics in order to pry lose a quick laugh. Something I can definitely appreciate.
I guess it's pretty remarkable that through all the crazy comedy and the eye-popping presentation, Jiajia Zhang still finds a way to insert some proper drama. And not in that cheap way where halfway through the comedy disappears and the mood suddenly makes a complete 180, but simply by inserting some poignant moments in between all the comedy bits. This way Bai Du Ren actually takes on a little more weight than you'd expect based on the first 30 minutes or so. It's a subtle balance that is sure to give the film some extra lasting power.
Bau Du Ren is a pleasure to behold. It works both as a super stylish genre flick and as more accessible entertainment. There's plenty of talent involved and nobody disappoints. It's somewhat of a mess of influences, but the film itself always feels coherent and solid. It's a perfect ode to 25 years of Jet Tone and a testament to Wong Kar-wai's genius. On top of that, it's a more than pleasant introduction to Jiajia Zhang's directorial skills. Definitely one of the best Chinese films I've seen in a while.