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FILM REVIEW: Back to the Wharf (2020)

Updated: Jan 22

Back to the Wharf (Feng Ping Lang Jing) - New Release Review


Director: Li Xiaofeng

Starring: Zhang Yu, Song Jia, Wang Yanhui, Lee Hong-Chi


Written by: Li Xiaofeng, Yu Xin

Produced by: Dun He, Huang Bo

Cinematography by: Piao Songri

Original Score by: Wenzi


Synopsis:

Song Hao's past begins to haunt him when he returns to his hometown after 15 years fleeing a crime scene and gets mixed up in a scheme involving the daughter of his victim.

Thoughts:

First released in China in late 2020 'Back to the Wharf' then went on a successful festival run throughout Europe and Canada in 2021 and now it finally gets a wide release.



'Back to the Wharf' is a moody neo-noir crime drama and it's deliberate slow pacing won't be for everyone. However as a character piece it's just stunning filmmaking with gorgeous cinematography and wonderful performances from all the main cast.


The film follows Song Hao, who returns to his coastal fishing hometown 15 years after he fled following an accidental homicide. His mother has sadly passed away and the time has come for him to make amends with his father, with whom his relationship was already strained prior to the "accident". Song Hao was once a promising student whose college accreditation is dismissed by the mayor in favour of his friend Li Tang. Angry and in disbelief, Song breaks in to the wrong house and in a moment of madness ends up leaving a civilian for dead. Song Hao's father comes across the civilian in question and fearing the worst for his boy he finishes the job, killing the innocent man.

Song Hao ( Zhang Yu) flees his hometown and ends up working as a manual labourer at a stone carving factory. Fast forward 15 years and Hao's return hasn't went unnoticed. Firstly by his old classmate Pan Xiashuang (Song Jia) who reencounters him at a toll booth where she works and then pushes him to take her out on a date. His return is also noticed by his old pal Li Tang (Lee Hong-Chi) who is now a development manager in the midst of a troubling and destructive deal to tear down some local housing in favour of a more financially lucrative building development.



It's very clear from the outset that Song Hao is still struggling with his unspeakable past and his guilt for a heinous crime that he had no intention of ever committing is eating him up inside. His reunion with his father, who now has a position of power within the town and a new family, is as expected, awkward and muted. Hao is unaware that his father played any part in the murder all those years ago and that he also has been harbouring burdensome guilt. A guilt that he had to keep a secret for so long and that, unlike his son, he was unable to escape from.

Hao has no intention of staying after his mother's funeral but Pan Xiashuang just won't allow him to leave so easily. At her request (and after forcefully and secretly damaging Hao's car) the two go out for dinner which ends up being a bit one sided. Hao has zero interest in her, initially anyway, and just wants to be left alone. Xiashuang is also struggling with her own issues. Someone who feels like she deserves more love and someone who knows what she wants. Eventually the two do get together and tie the knot. Their scenes together are kinda hypnotic but also highly tense, like I always got the impression that Xiashuang was a little unstable and might be capable of something horrendous. But at the heart of this film is a morally conflicted man who just wants to get his life back on track and the relationship with Xiashuang perfectly illustrates Hao's hesitance and fears that he so willingly hides behind.


The film plods along, beautifully done so but plodding nonetheless, to its inciting incident which really does come out of nowhere and involves another homicide. There's very little explaining in this film so you'll have to make sure you're following and staying focused on what's going on. It's not convoluted at all but the narrative is character focussed rather than action focussed.

Hao and Xiashuang's relationship grows at an exponential speed but it's super sweet and the actors' chemistry is incredibly natural. The involvement of Wan Xiaoning (Deng Enxi) the daughter of the man Hao murders at the beginning creates a problematic conundrum in Hao's now stable life.



'Back to the Wharf' has a smallish cast but everyone is almost flawless, particularly the two leads Zhang Yu and Song Jia. There's lots of shots where the camera holds on the characters doing nothing, mostly just looking off into the distance, which may not seem like anything important but the actors perform these little nuances so well that everything on screen seems really believable. The bumbling energy between the two feels legitimate and palpable and Jia does these little subtle actions that really add to her character that I picked up on straight away. That's either a combination of great direction from Li Xiaofeng or just incredible intuition from Jia. Wang Yanhui's performance as Hao's father brings a lot of verity to the film in regards to tradition and family and the weight of fatherhood. There's a scene towards the end that is truly heartbreaking. And all of this is mostly accompanied by a typically awesome noir-ish brass score featuring delicate saxophones and trumpets, creating an even more alluring moody atmosphere when necessary.


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Verdict: ️½


- Gavin Logan


'Back to the Wharf' is available to Rent or Buy on Digital Platforms from January 17th

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