The second directorial effort of Han Han, a successful – and sometimes controversial – author, singer, prize-winning race car driver and China’s most followed blogger, Duckweed went from production to release in under four months, a rather impressive feat given that the result is as polished as the other Chinese New Year films of 2017, though with much less CGI and a modest small-town setting. Xu Tailang (Deng Chao) is a race car driver who just won a championship, and resentfully dedicates his victory to his father Xu Chengzheng (Eddie Peng), who raised him harshly and tried to stop him from pursuing his dream of racing. Tailang’s mother died giving birth to him, and Chengzheng spent the first six years of his son’s life in prison. Now, he has come to witness his Tailang’s victory, and the estranged father and son go on a car ride to sort out their issues. As they drive through a railroad crossing, their car is hit by a passing train, and they are rushed to the hospital, where Tailang’s life flashes in front of his eyes. But instead of dying, he finds himself transported to a small Chinese town in 1998, a year before he is supposed to be born. There, he meets none other than his father, an energetic young man full of dreams, who fancies himself a gang leader and plans to marry his childhood sweetheart Xiaohua (Zhao Liying). Tailang befriends his own father and joins his harmless gang, becoming the witness of the events that led to his own inauspicious birth.
The high-concept at the basis of Duckweed – a man transported in his own past – isn’t that high or fresh anymore, and Han Han skillfully underplays its comical effects – there are quite a few amusing references to the time period shift: the use of pagers and how one character thinks they will only gain value with time, the use of VHS and how that same character thinks it is the future of film-watching, or how a future internet trailblazer is gently scoffed at as a nerdy loon destined to be poor. Similarly, the realization by Tailang that the woman he’s been trying to seduce is none other than his mother is not played to crass vaudeville cymbal crashes, but gives way to funny and moving moments where his attachment to that woman, whom he never met in his “real” life and who has yet to give birth to him, is seen as almost irrational by his unsuspecting friends, his hugs with her being often prolonged beyond apparent social acceptability, as he makes up for his lifelong regret for never having known her. There are also quietly hilarious time paradox moments where Tailang inadvertently helps bring about his future harsh upbringing; they are fleeting and delicious, so we will not divulge any.
But on the whole Duckweed never becomes the high-concept comedy it could have easily been. It is a consistently funny film, but in this lovingly -captured, seemingly ever-cloudy small town where most of the film unfolds, Han Han prefers to examine real-life discrepancies: generationally, the paradoxically wide gap that separates the nineties from the 21st century; and humanly, the even wider gap that separates those whose life is doomed to stagnate (metaphorically, the titular “duckweed”, aquatic plants of stagnant waters, glimpsed throughout the film), to those who chose to venture into the unknown and the unsure. No judgement is cast on the former category, nor is it really made to be a category per se, as fate plays a prominent role. And in the end, the real time paradox in the film is the misunderstanding between a well-meaning, big-hearted but hapless and misguided father, and his ambitious but wounded and resentful son. Thus, the more obvious emotion of the film’s deftly melodramatic moments, often recalling, or even referencing Hong Kong classics (like the first half of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head), is gradually doubled with a deeper, surd and more long-lasting emotion. Reconciliation, more than nostalgia, is what Duckweed extolls.
Han Han’s direction,softly poetic and generously melodramatic (emotional Hong Kong-style montages are plentiful) is supported by a first-rate cast. Deng Chao is excellent (as always, really) as Tailang, deadpan in comedy and understated in melodrama, and sharing unexpected chemistry with Eddie Peng. The latter has never been better. Peng can be a bit bland in dramatic roles, but always shines with more light-hearted fare. Here, the fact that the drama is coated in comedy seems to have unlocked his full potential, and he reminds us of a young Chow Yun Fat: irrepressible, charismatic, goofy and affecting. Zhao Liying is fine but her character is often sidelined in favor of bromance, just as in the John Woo films where Chow Yun Fat once shone. But in key moments, she channels some of the film’s most affecting emotions. In the supporting cast, Gao Huayang, a fellow race car driver of Han’s, and only in his second film, leaves the strongest impression as a bumbling, devoted and ultimately confused member of Eddie Peng’s endearingly harmless and juvenile “gang”, while Chin Shih Chieh has an amusing recurring cameo as police chief flanked with incompetent underlings.
Long Story Short: Consistently funny and increasingly moving, Duckweed underplays its high concept comedy and nostalgic melodrama in favor of an affecting story of reconciliation. ****