Hu Guan is one of China's best kept secrets. Lao Poa Er [Mr. Six] is my fourth Guan film and while broad international recognition still seems like quite a way off, it's clearly not because he lacks the talent. His films might be somewhat of a tough sell as they don't really conform to classic Chinese export standards (it's neither poverty arthouse nor big epic, martial arts cinema), but that doesn't make them any less interesting. On the contrary I would say.
Hu Guan's luck seems to be changing a little though, after all Mr. Six made it to Venice and Toronto last year. But like most Chinese directors who tend to wander off the beaten path, Guan seems to have trouble building up a critical mass of admirers oversees. He will probably have to prove his worth with each new film he directs, which is why I won't be surprised if his latest film, Zai Shijie de Zhongxin Huhuan Ai [Run for Love], will completely fail to reach Western audiences.
Mr. Six is a bit of a departure for Guan. He abandons his favored rural setting and moves his story to the city. Fans of Zhangke Jia will surely recognize the film's underlying theme, as older generations clash with Chinese youngsters, but Guan's execution bears much stronger genre influences compared to the films of Jia. Guan serves a strong mix of gritty, oldskool Chinese life with slick, modern cinematographic touches. It's a weird melange at times, but Guan has an excellent track record of pulling it off.
The film follows Mr. Six, an old gang leader who spends his remaining days wandering around the city, protecting the less fortunate while dishing out minor life lessons left and right. When he finds out that his estranged son has run into some trouble, Mr. Six is quick to intervene, but his old ways don't really mix with the ways of younger criminals and his intervention ends up making things worse for the both of them. Still, Mr. Six isn't one to back down from a challenge, so he rounds up his old gang mates to wreak havoc one more time. Not everyone is eager to join Mr. Six in his latest adventure though.
Like always, Guan's films look lush. Sure enough Mr. Six has a gritty, dirty and somewhat gravelly look, but it feels nothing like the rough, lifeless and almost-handheld cinematography that usually goes with this type of setting. Instead Guan makes good use of strong colors and contrasts, opts for solid and deliberate camera movement and edits it all together with lots of panache. The result is a film that looks good from start to finish, with a few standout moments that force you to take notice.
The soundtrack is a bit of a disappointment though. Not that it's outspokenly bad, but in Guan's previous films the music was always a notable and important element of the overall atmosphere. The soundtrack in Mr. Six isn't terrible, it's just not very memorable. A couple of days after watching the film I'm really struggling to remember a single moment where the music made a lasting impression, which is never a good sign. Hopefully Guan will turn this around again in his next film.
The casting on the other hand is perfect. Xiaogang Feng (director of Ye Yan) takes up the lead role and does an excellent job. It's not the first time Feng stands in front of the camera, but I don't think I've ever seen him in such a big role before. Opposite Feng is Kris Wu, the popular Chinese-Canadian singer turned actor. While he pretty much looks like any other slick, generic boy band member, he actually delivers a worthwhile performance. The secondary cast is top notch too. Not the most familiar faces, but they all do a commendable job.
Mr. Six is a peculiar mix of genres. The classic old vs new theme is no doubt the core of the film, but what Guan builds around it is a bit harder to define. There's quite a bit of human drama here, but also strong traces of crime cinema (it reminded me a little of Du Zhan, Johnnie To's China-based crime flick). Mr. Six' character is the center of the film, but it's more than just a character drama. And then there's the ostrich of course, but I'm not going to spoil how that ties into the story.
Guan's latest takes a little time before it hits full speed, but once everything is set up there is plenty to enjoy. The film looks beautiful, the acting is superb and while thematically a little easy the execution and blend of genres makes sure it never becomes too dull or feels too familiar. Mr. Six is just more proof of Guan's talents. Hopefully this film will further boost his international career, but I wouldn't hold my breath. As long as the Chinese are nice enough to include English subtitles on their DVDs, I won't mind too much though.