Delayed for more than a year for reasons unclear (censorship issues or belabored editing?), Cheng Er’s third film takes place in Shanghai in the thirties and forties -before, during and after the battle and subsequent capture of the city by the Japanese. It follows various characters all connected to Mister Lu (Ge You), a crime boss: there’s his housekeeper (Ni Yan), his superior (Ni Dahong), the prostitute he occasionally visits (Gillian Chung), an actress he admires and helps (Yuan Quan), another actress (Zhang Ziyi) unfaithfully married to his superior, her lover (Wallace Chung), her other lover (Hang Geng), and more importantly Watabe (Tadanobu Asano), a Japanese man who got married and made his life in Shanghai, and claims he will fight for his city rather than side with his countrymen. When Japanese businessmen approach Mister Lu with plans for a lucrative partnership, he refuses ; death ensues.
The Wasted Times is a fascinating film. Unfolding in non-linear fashion, it surprises, confounds, frustrates and shocks the spectator into a stupor (or a torpor), without reaching any sort of climax or providing any kind of thrills. Timeline-hopping segments focusing on various interconnected characters initially seem to be heading towards some kind of epiphany, much like Cheng’s previous film, the masterful Lethal Hostage, gradually fleshed out simple events into a poignant tragedy. But instead, The Wasted Times keeps pulling red herrings (famous actors appear for mere seconds) and displays an obvious disdain for the tropes and conventions of the genres of film noir and historical epic, to which it superficially seems to belong.
Indeed, despite being set in a big city during the Japanese invasion, the film takes place mostly indoors, and when we step outside the streets are empty. The Japanese army is barely glimpsed (a truck full of soldiers driving by in the night), and even in segments supposed to be set during the battle of Shanghai, a heavy silence weighs on the proceedings. Gunplay is scarce, over in the blink of an eye though shot and edited with remarkable precision. The double-crossings and hard-boiled posturing of film noir are dealt with in a manner so matter-of-fact, that they lose all of the dark appeal they would normally provide.
But this is not a film lacking in darkness. Oh no. In fact, it is a study of evil, and as such draws from the essence of wartime drama and film noir, rather than their tropes. The wartime setting, alluded to but oddly invisible as previously mentioned, is invisible precisely because it is an abstract canvas (when does evil thrive more freely than in time of war?), rather than a source of epic tragedy or spectacle. And film noir, beyond moonlit streets, mystery and gunplay, takes its roots in a grim outlook on human nature. And if The Wasted Times seemingly never gathers dramatic momentum, it instead peels away layers of appearances to get at a core of evil depicted with a mercilessly ironic coldness. A young man reluctantly admits he’s a virgin while bantering with a friend, before clobbering a man to death with a shovel. A sturdy family man has his own sex slave. A jovial governess is a threatening viper. A cute prostitute is a cold and efficient killer. In the center of it all, the amoral Mister Lu, played with his usual minimalism by Ge You, is the eye of a quiet storm of evil and cowardice, while Shigeru Umabayashi’s score, often drawing starkly sarcastic inspiration from a Schubert lied, is in turns gorgeous and offbeat.
At key moments, two original songs are played with lyrics (neither directly related to the story nor off-topic) appearing on screen, which is not the only self-conscious device in the film. Various subplots revolving around films being shot are fiendishly mocking towards the industry: actors are weak, cheating fools, a director is a crying mess, and an actress is auditioned on a scene where her character is only a corpse. Though this is part of a strong undercurrent of dark humour in the film, it also makes us suspect that Cheng Er’s non-linear approach – which when all is said and done doesn’t add anything in dramatic terms – is simply his way of mirroring the cruelty his plot is filled with: he, the director, is being a cruel god, cutting his story out of order just because he can, or to rob the audience of any catharsis. This is not an amiable or satisfying film.
Around the unflappable Ge You, a talented cast acts out Cheng’s dark vignettes: Zhang Ziyi valiantly takes on a thankless role, full of vulnerability, resignation and weak vengefulness. Ni Yan is a delight as falsely naive housekeeper, while Yuan Quan embodies with grace perhaps the only positive character in the story. But towering above all is Tadanobu Asano, sinking his teeth in the film’s true lead role ; while the plot and direction do their conscious best not to thrill, Asano captivates in every scene in a portrait of evil full of many attributes: greed, concupiscence, duplicity, ruthlessness… All wrapped in a charismatic and repulsive human being.
Long Story Short: Cheng Er’s third film surprises, confounds, shocks, and frustrates. Relentlessly ironic, increasingly cruel, mercilessly offbeat and sometimes painfully self-conscious, it’s an amoral puzzle that might need a few re-watches to satisfyingly assemble. ***1/2