Here’s the scam: Two itinerant workers travel around northwest China taking jobs as coal miners. Once they’ve been employed at a particular place for a while, they kill one of their co-workers and make it look like a mining accident. Having convinced the mine boss that the dead man is a relative, they’re then given a significant sum of hush money, a payoff that is meant to both placate them in light of their loss and to keep them from going to the police to complain about the unsafe conditions of the mine. They then move on to their next job and their next victim. It’s a cold-blooded con, one that reflects of a society that’s both corrupt and poor. The two killers, Song and Tang, share a similar hard-case facade, and their tough-guy lingo is amusingly rendered in the idiomatic subtitles, for instance, “bro” used for brother and “fucking” as the all-purpose adjective.
But while Tang seems like a genuine sociopath, Song conscientiously wires money home, concerned that his son can afford an education. When Tang picks their next victim, a naive 16-year-old boy, Song finds himself moved by the young man’s innocence and sincerity, feelings he has to suppress since they would be seen by his partner as signs of weakness. The tension mounts as the day they’re to kill the boy approaches and continues right up to a satisfyingly ironic ending.
Writer-director Li Yang’s screenplay is adapted from a novel by Liu Qingbang, and one can see why, despite winning several film festival awards, the movie has been banned in China. It’s a combination of social critique and muckraking exposé, a totally unromantic view of how the poor live and hustle and a damning look at the appalling conditions of the mine workers. At one point, lounging in some sleazy dive with a couple of prostitutes, Tang and Song do a karaoke version of an old party anthem called “Long Live Socialism,” complete with updated lyrics that make cynical reference to the infusion of U.S. dollars into the Chinese economy. But these are people beyond disillusionment, doing whatever’s necessary to make some money. What separates Tang and Song from the toiling masses is their ambition. Let the other poor suckers slave away for a few bucks! These guys are entrepreneurs.
In Chinese with English subtitles at the Detroit Film Theater (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Mar. 15, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].