FATHER AND SON (2017) review

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Fan Xiaobing (Da Peng) is a thirty-something aspiring entrepreneur who idolizes Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but never manages to convince investors to back his ideas, and keeps borrowing money from his close ones. He’s a big disappointment to his father Fan Yingxiong (Fan Wei), a retired army commander, and to his longtime friend Liu Wen (Crystal Zhang), who obviously fancies him, but towards whom he has not yet made a single step. Now Xiaobing is in deep trouble, as he has borrowed a hefty sum from a particularly cruel loan shark (Simon Yam), who is sending his goons to collect, including the bumbling Fang Jian (Qiao Shan). Left with little time to gather a hefty sum, Xiaobing decides to send his father on a trip, to then pretend he is dead, organize a fake funeral and collect donations from the family and friends who attend. But the father returns earlier than expected…

A tough, old-world father who must step in (with the help of his old comrades in arms) for the son who disappoints him, when the latter gets in trouble and owes a large sum of money to dangerous people. In a way, Yuan Weidong’s Father and Son sometimes feels like a broad, comedic take on Guan Hu’s Mr. Six. But though it does touch upon questions of the generation gap in Chinese society by putting back to back a stern, principled and rigid father and his ambitious but spineless son, the film has neither the depth nor the sense of nostalgia of Guan Hu’s 2015 hit. Nor does it aim to. It’s a mostly scattershot, almost episodic comedy that starts out with droll vignettes illustrating the father’s toughness and the son’s desperate sense of ambition, then turns to sitcom as the son runs around trying to fake his father’s funeral, takes a turn towards the pathetic as he starts to crumble under the weight of his lies and failures, before ending in a surprising showdown that is as brutal as it is goofy (shades of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass there).

It is all both fitfully charming and often frustrating, as Yuan Weidong doesn’t seem to have made up his mind on what kind of film, and certainly hasn’t succeeded in making a film that can successfully be many things at once. And in Fan Xiaobing, it has a main character so relentlessly lame, dishonest and feeble, that it’s hard to ever root for him, though Da Peng definitely makes him pitiful. And his son/father relationship to Fan Wei is quite believable, the latter a delight from start to finish. Vivian Wu is sweet but underused as the father’s girlfriend, while Crystal Zhang makes the most a thankless role: it’s hard to understand what her character sees in this plain-looking coward, but somehow she manages at least one touching moment with Da Peng. Simon Yam has little screen time but has low-key fun with the kind of cruel boss roles he knows like the back of his hand.

Long Story Short: A fitfully amusing, occasionally surprising, largely unfocused comedic take on the generation gap in Chinese society.  **1/2

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