Street Date 6/27/23;
Stars You Ge, Ziyi Zhang, Tadanobu Asano, Quan Yuan, Ni Yan, Dahong Ni.
Directed with metronome precision, Er Cheng’s (Lethal Hostage, Hidden Blade) mesmerizing 2016 film The Wasted Times wastes no time in thoroughly confounding the hell out of the audience. There’s a lot to unpack, starting with the racketeer rags. Bedecked in black, form-fitting cheongsam lab coats topped by a wide-brimmed Sam Spade fedora and qipao collar reminiscent of a clergyman’s tab, these boys look more like Taoist priests in a neorealist noir than they do pre-war Japanese mobsters. Or am I being redundant? We open and close after World War II. Told in achronological order, scenes are destined to repeat, and when they do it’s with the additional flourish or two of information that forces one to reevaluate the truth as initially told. Our first of many flashes back (and forwards) is to 1937, prior to the Battle of Shanghai. Before it ends, the war is over and Japanese POWs are building their own internment camps on Luzon Island.
The film’s unifying force is Chinese crime lord Mister Lu (Ge You). An outwardly taciturn mouse, if so instructed Lu will order an entire family slaughtered before your eyes, whether or not the punishment fits the crime. His is a spotless universe of gangster glitterati, an antibacterial paradise soiled only by an occasional river of mahogany splattered brains. Cheng does his best to sidestep gangster tropes, but even he couldn’t resist kicking things off with the old “body part in the jewelry chest” gag. In this case, a jade bracelet came draped around its former owner’s wrist. If it’s any consolation, the hand in the box belongs to the offending thug’s side piece and not his wife.
The only thing better than a filmmaker drawing a direct line between criminals and the clergy is painting military combat as a gateway drug to gangland. Many of the soldiers in Lu’s army grew to enjoy killing in the service of their country. At war’s end, members of his goon squad chose to profit off information gleaned during their tours of duty. Loyalty to one’s country and feelings of national identity are at the core of the history lesson. Watabe (Tadanobu Asano), Japanese-born and passing for Shanghainese, is Lu’s brother-in-law. If there’s a war, Watabe would fight on the side of Shanghai. No wonder the restaurateur’s best customer is a black alley cat. Normally, what gets Watabe to eventually change his mind about Japan would be enough to make audiences stand and cheer, but in his case the punishment more than fit the crime.
Other than costumes, hair and cars, there’s not much in the way of attention to period detail. Nor is there any sign of a sense of humor. The sets are spectacular, but just stagey enough for audiences to envy characters who get to go outside and grab some fresh air. What sets this apart from its contemporaries is a surprising attention to female characters not generally associated with the genre. The majority of women in crime films are props used to bolster testosterone. Cheng actually invites dames to his boy’s club, and while never afforded full membership, the presence of Ziyi Zhang, Quan Yuan and Ni Yan adds a touch of well-rounded personation that Martin Scorsese and John Woo can only dream of.
Lastly, I’m obsessed with directors capable of putting a fresh spin on something as tried and true as a ride in a car. (The mere thought of Mort Mills and Chuck Heston’s tour of back-alley Tijuana with the top down in Touch of Evil raises goose flesh.) Through Chang’s lens, a car’s interior is divided into four quadrants, and you’re never sure exactly who, if anyone, is in the passenger’s side and back seat. Not all is stylistically pleasing: The one exterior shot into the driver’s side rear window is enough to make blood boil.
I loved loathing these characters. It’s a tough sell, but look at it as a gift that keeps on giving. It will probably take a minimum of three viewings to crack, but your patience will be rewarded tenfold. As for bonus features, there’s never a commentary track when you need one!