NIGHT PEACOCK (aka LE PAON DE NUIT) (2016) review

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The sixth film of Chinese-French author and director Dai Sijie, Night Peacock tells of Elsa (Crystal Liu Yifei), a musician who spends her time between France and China. In the western city of Chengdu, she meets Ma Rong (Leon Lai) an expert player of the Shakuhachi flute who owns a silkworm factory. Elsa soon becomes both fascinated by silkworms – living beings that have to be sacrificed so that precious silk may be extracted – and infatuated with Ma Rong. But she also meet Lin (Yu Shaoqun), a young opera singer who’s in love with her to the point of following her around, breaking into her room and trying on her high-heels. But the film unfolds in non-linear fashion, with the other half of the scenes taking place later in Paris, where Elsa learns she’s pregnant (we don’t know whom from yet), and meets Ma Rong’s younger brother Ma Jianmin (Liu Ye), an undocumented tattoo artist who marvels at her skin and offers to adorn her back with a tattoo of a night peacock, a beautiful but rare and short-lived butterfly. Soon, Elsa and Jianmin are in love.

Taking place both in the lush region of Sichuan and in Paris, one of the most cinegenic cities in the world, means Dai Sijie’s Night Peacock is at all times visually very pleasing, with cinematographer Saba Mazloum expertly capturing the sometimes striking locales (the silkworm factory is a fascinating place). But in trying to explore the complex relationship of a woman with three different men, the film simply falls short, literally: at a little over 80 minutes, long patches are devoted to languid and quaint moments of poetry. There is a lot of flute-playing, whether it be in a traditional Chinese courtyard, on the banks of the Seine or, more ridiculously, in the middle of a swimming pool; the parallel between silkworms and love – both fragile, precious, and often doomed – is belabored, while there’s an unfortunate and laughable attempt at being hip, when Elsa guest-DJs in a night club, with Ma Rong playing the flute over techno music.

There’s an interesting twist in the second half of the film that gives it some poignancy, but on the whole each relationship is either painfully underdeveloped (the ever-excellent Liu Ye barely registers in an important but short-changed role) or free of chemistry: Liu Yifei and Leon Lai (who is aging finely as an actor) are individually fine in their roles, but don’t click together. Yu Shaoqun is quite effective in a mentally troubled role, but his interesting relationship with Leon Lai (which is the subject of the film’s twist) is undercut by an abrupt conclusion that’s more puzzling than striking.

Long Story Short: Though well-acted and visually pleasing, Night Peacock is a languid, quaint and underdeveloped romantic drama. **

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