It was almost two years ago that I first watched and reviewed Hu Guan's Cow, one of the weirdest animal/buddy mash-ups I've ever encountered. While a great film, it never reached much of an audience and so I didn't have too much confidence in ever hearing from Guan again. But here we are, two years later and Guan has a new film ready. It's not about animals this time around, but the setting and feel of the film are clearly reminiscent of Guan's previous film. Fans rejoice!
When I sat down to watch Design Of Death [Sha Sheng] I hadn't even realized that I was going to be a Hu Guan film. It didn't take more than five minutes before the first connections between this film and Cow started to surface though. It wasn't just the setting (a rundown, rural mountain village) or Bo Huang's (the main character) appearance, it was Guan's typical style and tone of voice that truly links these two films together.
Design Of Death is the story of Niu Jie Shi, a young boy growing up in a secluded mountain village. While Niu has a certain charm, he is also one hell of a bastard, constantly annoying the villagers with his nasty little tricks. Niu wasn't born in the village which immediately creates a natural schism between him and the villagers, further driven to extremes by Niu's bratty behavior. When Niu finally crosses the line of the acceptable, the villagers come together and devise a plan to get rid of Niu.
All of this is told through a series of flashbacks. The film starts off with the investigation of Yi Sheng, a doctor who was ordered to check out the village. He finds Niu dead beside the road and becomes intrigued by the events that happened one year earlier, leading up to Niu's unfortunate death. Through these flashbacks (or actually, the interpretations of Sheng) the film tries to reconstruct the final days of Niu's life.
As for the visual side of things, I think it's safe to say that Design Of Death looks truly spectacular. From the inventive camera angles and beautiful use of color to the mad and manic camera work and editing, this film is a real sight to behold. The visual clash of the run-down village with Guan's contemporary film techniques is pretty interesting as it creates a unique and distinct atmosphere. Guan clearly knows how to shoot a pretty film.
The soundtrack too is pretty interesting. It does feature some more traditional Chinese music, but this often serves as a direct contrast to the more jarring and upbeat selection of tracks. Design Of Death is a comedy at heart and while not always apparent from the story itself, the film uses its soundtrack to remove all remaining doubts. On top of that, it also features some truly spectacular music, especially near the end of the film. It's nice to see some Chinese directors finally breaking free from safe and traditional soundtracks.
Even though the visuals and soundtrack are great, Guan didn't just stop there. He made it extra hard on himself by featuring a main character that isn't all that likable. And yet, Bo Huang has a certain charm that easily captures the audience. It's tricky because at times his character can appear to be a real asshole, yet Guan makes sure we never stop caring for him. Other notable performances come from Nan Yu (Niu's love interest) and Simon Yam (the investigating doctor). Acting performances are top-notch across the line.
Design Of Death plays like a mix of Jiang's Let The Bullets Fly and Chan's Wu Xia. There's a definite mystery element at play here, as we slowly learn about the events that preceded Niu's death, while at the same time Design Of Death has that same "anything goes" feel that's popular in Chinese comedy films nowadays. The result is a true pleasure to behold.
It's definitely not the easiest of films, the first hour is filled with unsympathetic characters doing ugly things to each other. But the actors bring a disarming charm, the humor is actually funny and Guan delivers a worthwhile audiovisual experience, in a way that sets it apart from other Chinese films. Add to that an interesting plot and a superb finale and I can only conclude Guan outdid himself Design Of Death is an awesome film and definitely worth your time. Let's hope this film manages to land a bigger audience than Guan's previous work because it at least deserves the chance to please a wider audience.