Last year I ran into Han Han's Duckweed, a slightly flawed but slick and amusing drama/comedy that betrayed a lot of potential. Working backwards through a director's oeuvre can be a little tricky sometimes, but when I bumped into The Continent [Hou Hui Wu Qi], Han Han's first feature film, I didn't hesitate a second. And it's a good thing I didn't, because The Continent turned out to be a remarkably poignant, sweet and funny film. One that establishes Han Han as one of China's brightest young talents.
Han Han is somewhat of a renaissance man. He's only 35 years old, but he's already writing, acting and directing. That is, besides being a novelist, rally driver and singer. His collected body of (film-related) work isn't very comprehensive yet, but he's only been at it for 3 years and within that time he proved himself a man of many talents who is willing to invest in all of them. For The Continent, he wrote the screenplay, wrote the lyrics for one of the songs on the soundtrack and helmed the film as a director. That's quite a lot of responsibility for a youngster. Then again, if it turns out as well as this film did, you instantly leave a mark.
At the core of the film lies a simply road movie, following two lifelong friends driving from the east to the west of China. It's a classic setup, somewhat episodic with characters joining and leaving again at regular intervals. What sets The Continent apart from similar films is its dry and deadpan sense of humor. It's not even all that subtle, deep or highbrow, but there's a slightly darkish layer or comedy here that you don't find that often in Chinese cinema. It's not quite Solondz or Payne, but it resides in that same corner.
The film follows Jia, a young teacher who lives and works on China's easternmost island. When the government decides to stop developing the small island, Jia is tranferred to a school on the other side of the country. His two best friends decide to leave the island with him and they join Jia on his cross-country trip. On their first stop though, they're already forced to leave one of them behind, after a dubious episode with a local prostitute. Things just get progressively worse from there on out.
Aesthetically, The Continent reminded me a little of slightly older Taiwanese dramas (think pre-2008). There's certain idyllic beauty and focus on nature that you often find in these Taiwanese films, only The Continent comes off a bit more modern. The camera work is less traditional and features some funky angles, while the editing appears a little snappier. It's not the epitome of modern-day film making, but for a film that spends most of its time racing though rural China, it looks pretty damn slick and beautiful.
The soundtrack is pretty low-risk. consisting mostly of subtle piano music and toned down pop music. It's there to bridge some quiet voids, but accomplishes little beyond that. Han Han does try to diversify a little by including Doris Day's classic Que Sera Sera hit, but that really isn't the most original of choices either. It's not a bad soundtrack mind, it works well within the film and never gets in the way of things. It sets out a solid, pleasant atmosphere that serves as an anchor for the rest of the film, but it's just not very adventurous or memorable.
Even though The Continent was Han Han's first feature film, he did manage to land himself a pretty impressive cast. Bo-lin Chen has been working hard to establish himself as one of China/Taiwan's leading talents, Wallace Chung and William Feng complement him really well here. Luodan Wang plays a notable part as one of the film's secondary characters and fans will be happy to hear that Zhangke Jia picked up a small role too. Seeing Jia act is rare, so don't miss the opportunity.
Like most road movies, The Continent is somewhat episodic. The first half of the film is little more than a collection of vignettes, introducing us to the main characters through their encounters with others. The second half of the film is more linear and allows Han to dig a little deeper. Luckily the film never loses its sense of humor, even when things get a bit more dramatic and emotional. Han reachers a nice balance where drama and comedy manage to fortify each other, rather than work against each other.
The Continent isn't very original or earth-shattering. It's funnier than I would've guessed, but that's mainly because Chinese films rarely combine drama and comedy in a very balanced way. It is however a very warm, amicable and soothing film with just enough of an edge to keep things interesting. If you like Taiwanese cinema or you're looking for a film to break into China's more contemporary cinema, The Continent is a great option. It's a pretty easy recommend, finding the film might be a little tougher though.