COCK AND BULL (2016) review

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After three films that oscillated between the tragic and the bittersweet (The Equation of Love and DeathEinstein and Einstein and The Dead End), writer-director Cao Baoping returns to his first love, rural dark comedy. In Cock and Bull, a mechanic named Song (Liu Ye) has to deal with two exigent issues. First, he is under pressure from a big mining company to move his ancestors’ graves so that a big mining operation may proceed on his land, which he steadfastly refuses to do, out of a deep-rooted sense of filial duty. But equally pressingly, he must clear his name after a fellow villager is murdered and suspicion falls on him, because he had a fight with him weeks before. Song thus sets out to find the real killer, who may be either a local delinquent (Duan Bowen) who somehow is in possession of the victim’s motorcycle, or a shaky nightclub owner (Zhang Yi) hard up for cash who moonlights as a hitman for local mobsters.

Cock and Bull is divided into five segments that each examine the central murder, its reasons and its consequences from the point of view of a different character, with a gradual and delightful slide from deadpan rural satire to a near-thriller of inspired and understated chaos. With its noble simpletons, venal losers and clumsy killers flailing around against the austere, majestic and indifferent backdrop of the Yunnan province, Cao Baoping’s film feels almost like the Chinese answer to the Coen brothers’ Fargo and certainly doesn’t suffer by comparison. But it is less cynical: like in The Equation of Love and Death, Cao adopts multiple points of view not to create false complexity, but to emphasize fate as a lead character of his story, and to place even the worst characters in a humanizing perspective, even if it often entails mercilessly back humour. But after all, few things are more human than ridicule. It is often in the smallest details that he tells us most about his characters: one man pushing forty who tries and fails to execute a flip-up, or another who in a vain attempt to muster courage keeps picturing with his pointed fingers the length of a knife he once wielded during a bank robbery.

Liu Ye, who excels – among many other things – at playing boorish, simple-minded characters who feel invested with a vital mission, is on top form here, displaying great subtlety in portraying a character who’s never even heard of subtlety. A gifted comedic actor, he also entertains greatly, especially in a scene of wide-eyed paranoia where he walks the streets of a small village, turning around in panic every ten seconds, convinced he is being stalked. Matching him every step of the way is Zhang Yi, whose character spends half the film wearing a horned motorbike helmet he stole, and who still manages to make us feel sorry for this deplorable human being, even when he’s pathetically attempting to kill a fellow human being; one such scene near the end is a marvel of finely choreographed, near-Looney Tunes haplessness and clumsiness.

Long Story Short: Part dark comedy and part offbeat thriller, Cock and Bull is well-crafted and superbly enjoyable, a rare trace of excellence in what has been a lackluster year for Chinese cinema. ****

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