One of the pleasures of being in London for a few days is you come across films you’ve never heard of, have never seen publicised, take a punt, and come out entertained, moved, enriched; and this by a film you may not fully understand.
Mr. Six was such a film. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a popular film, a male melodrama, one not too different in basic thematics from Home from the Hill or Rebel Without a Cause. It’s about being a man, about how to be one, what it means to be one, the necessity of the striving to embody such ideals, and the inevitable failures such attempts entail. At the heart of it is a relationship between a father and a son; and that father and someone else’s son; a triangular relationship that cuts through class. And the context for it is a changing culture, one that worships money and consumer items, that has lost touch with a recent past, one where age-old conventions no longer apply and thus also about the generation gap that results from it: one where women are important but peripheral. At heart Mr. Six is a critique of the new political/moneyed/ business class in China; it’s a film that asks audiences to feel for, cry over, and accept cultural change.
The basic story is about an aging gang leader, Mr. Six (Fen Xiaogang), old now and done his time in jail but still respected in his community for achieving justice for his neighbours, a man who finds that negotiation can be can be just as effective as brute strength in resolving most problems. He hasn’t heard from his son Bobby (Li Yifeng) for a while, searches for him, and discovers that he’s got himself embroiled in gang dispute that involves a girl, a Ferrari, and a jealous boyfriend called Kris (Kris Wu), who happens to be both a spoiled rich brat and also the scion of a family of gangsters. As he tries to rescue his son, he gets into muddier and muddier waters at a higher and higher level.
As is traditional in the genre, the film is highly symbolic. There’s an imprisoned ostrich that makes a last bid for freedom through the crowded streets of Beijing. There’s a caged bird that can parrot only one phrase. There’s beautiful imagery of icy rivers that can be skated over or fought on but which can support or break. Snow, real snow, falls over the characters as they run to and away from hospitals and treatments that they don’t understand. Food and drink offer a setting over which men remember, brag about and regret their past. The film works ritualistically also, as classic Hollywood did, with events – the seeking of direction, the lighting of a cigarette – repeated in different contexts in a way that affects plot, meaning, tome. Mr. Six offers an imaginary reconciliation of real contradictions in which the troubles between neighbours is no different than the trouble in the country, the bond amongst friends are the same as those which tie a community together; the struggles between the generations, ones that can be overcome.
There are certain things that linger in the mind: the extraordinary calmness of Fen Xiagang’s central performance as Mr. Six — the actor, who I understand is primarily known as one of China’s most financially successful directors, seems to convey a zen calmness to other characters whilst letting the audience see how quickly he can spring into action; There is gorgeous cinematography by Luo Pan that shows fog and snow and things that are not quite clear in a clearly considered way; one of the themes seems to be that the world is full of people struggling with existential problems that cannot be treated like a reality show, that we as audiences and as people need to cultivate empathy and respect; that Guan Hu is director who’s not afraid to let his camera linger, a director to look out for.
The film has no surprises other than the style of its telling. It’s amazing how the re-enactment of clichéd structures can wield such force, can be so moving, when directed as confidently and sensitively as this director does. It’s a superb example of great popular filmmaking. The audience, almost entirely Chinese, laughed at things I didn’t understand but, like myself, stayed until the credits ended, as if not wanting to let go of the world they’d been immersed in, one with such similar problems, but one that offered much more honourable and satisfying resolutions. It’s a film to look out for.