The Wasted Times

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Review of

The Wasted Times (dir. Cheng Er)

Playing at AMC Empire 25

The Wasted Times is a powerful, multi-layered, richly lived film about a cat-and-mouse battle for power between the Japanese and Chinese in Shanghai in the years running up to the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937. It’s an impressive film though one would hesitate to recommend it to any American who has been educated by Hollywood product, given the near chasm in sensibility that yawns between the best recent Mainland Chinese cinema and HW productions. This difference rests on three factors, which my review will document:

1. Chinese films have a complexity of plot that far outdistances what is seen in HW work.

2. Even more crucial is the treatment of feelings. Most people admit American films are generally crude: characterized by comedies relying on cheap sexual and toilet humor oractions films all gun fights and car chases, but less noticed is the dumbing down of emotions, which only allow for rather Pavolvian cues signaling sentimentality reactions toward heroes or anger at villains. But Mainland Chinese films of the last few years go in the opposite direction, creating richer and richer emotional landscapes. Note, I’m not talking about the feeling emoted by the players as they reveal a character’s inner self. That HW can do fairly well. As I will illustrate below, I’m thinking of an arrangement of story content, which challenges the way the audience emotionally processes the goings-on.

 3. And there is the way in straightforward tales (that is, not experimental works) the Chinese regularly thrown in what are often non-obtrusive but quite striking new technical usages. (An obvious example is how in this year’s I Am Not Made Bovary, almost the entire film is projected in a circular frame as if everything were seen through a telescope.)


Let’s talk about emotional tonality first. Wasted begins as local Shanghai businessmen/gangsters are negotiating with the Japanese who want to open a joint co-prosperity bank. Mr. Lu (Ge You) is key here, and as the plot unfolds we learn more about his relation to his son, his servants, wife and to fellow Chinese elite. Negotiations break down with the Japanese, who kill Lu’s head servant, and there is a bloodbath battle between the two sides. Half the main characters are killed.

By this time, we are 25 minutes into the story. At this point the film backtracks to three years earlier and continued the study of the Lu household and those of other business leaders, going now for the first time into the men’s love affairs, especially with actresses (such as Zhang Ziyi) from the city’s film industry. Here’s where I see the emotional complexity in terms of identification with characters. As audience members are observing the birth of romances and the power plays of various characters, I think as they watch they will be constantly sorting through which characters will survive after the showdown. I believe this creates more complex ties to characters than what might grow up in viewers following a less convoluted storyline.

At this point, let me bring up point one, complexity of scenario. After what the relationships were three years before the opening section is tacked down, the film jumps to 1941. Those surviving in the Lu family and others have escaped to Hong Kong, which is now under threat of invasion by Japan. Questions are raised about associates who remained in Shanghai after it fell to Japan.

Jump back, pre-Shanghai invasion. We see another set of scenes before the shootout, which reveal that one Chinese character, unknown to viewers till now, was secretly helping the Japanese. This forces the audience to rethink a whole set of characters and what they were doing earlier in the film. Jump ahead to Chongqing, with the war just ended, and members of the Lu family find that a person shot, presumed dead, in the original gunfight is still alive.  Jump back to original time period because this new information has revealed a new traitor, a new rethink.

As you can imagine, such a plot can be a bit bewildering, but it is also heady in its complications, edging the film toward a novelistic depth.

            So far, I’ve probably given the impression that this film is something of a postmodern puzzle box, but I don’t mean to suggest this is the kind of tiresome intellectual exercise one finds, for example, in The Draughtsman’s Contract.  Rather this is a moving work, but with the emotional expression distributed over many characters, again as in a novel, as opposed to, as more commonly happens, the emoting being confined to one or two protagonists. Here many characters, in a peculiar way sometimes, are given room to breathe.   

            It’s in relation to this expressiveness that one of the film’s less showy innovations surfaces. The film features a few very long takes, but only of one type: reaction shots. For instance, a super-rich man wants a married woman (Gillian Chung) to become his mistress, and offers to give her ne’er-do-well husband a very lucrative, prestigious job as a partial payoff. She is self-righteously telling her husband about this offer when she learns he has already accepted the post and all it entails. Cut to her wordless, underplayed reaction in a shot held maybe triple the time of a normal close-up, allowing the viewer to carefully register the play of her expressive face.

            Obviously, to sustain viewer interest during such long close-ups, one needs players of the extraordinary caliber, certainly ones such as leads are Ge and Zhang. Ge who often plays serious roles, till now seemed (to me) most outstanding in more comic turns, such as that in If You Are the One, in which he plays the hapless, near lost wife hunter. Here, he is Lu, an austere, higher-up middle man, marshaling family and business energies to contest Japanese encroachments and the breakdown in marital relations among his fellow Chinese notables. It’s a rigorous, delicately played part. Zhang who proved her acting skills, if they could have been doubted at all, in Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, is the mistress of the city’s top boss, with aspirations to be an actress – the boss has the one copy of her only film destroyed when she runs afoul of him – who goes through a rebirth by violence, violence directed against her, moving from shallow party girl to determined survivor.

            To say more about the film’s stylistic originality, let me mention a second non-obtrusive innovation. You know how Western films sometimes create shock or comic effects by cutting almost violently from one setup to another, like from a murder to a Christmas party? Here there is the opposite method. When a particularly strong scene closes, say when a guy is beaten to death with a shovel (the violence is not shown directly), the screen suddenly goes totally black and that blackness is held 10, 20 seconds as if to give the audience room to digest what has happened before moving on. In a particularly striking empoyment of this device, used after it has been established, it is inserted in one continuous scene, punctuating the most poignant moments.

There’s more innovation, such as shooting dramatic scenes totally from above so all this is visible is the tops of characters’ heads, but let me end here. I’ve already made clear, I think, that this is an adventurous entry into filmmaking. I’ve also suggested that it is not for those who spirits have been broken by HW films. As the original Chinese title hints-- I’m not sure what Wasted Times means exactly – which would be literally translated as Romantic Story of Murder,  this is a film not only of action and love but of how to redefine storytelling.    

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