Back to the Wharf
风平浪静 (Feng Ping Lang Jing)
China, 2020, 119’, Mandarin
Directed by: Li Xiaofeng
Script: Yu Xin, Li Xiaofeng
Photography (color): Piao Songri
Editing: Zhang Qi
Art Direction: Zhong Cheng
Costume Design: Guo Xiaoyan
Music: Wen Zi
Sound: Lu Ke, Feng Yanming
Producer: Dun He
Executive Producer: Huang Bo
Production Companies: Xiamen Maoying Media Co., Ltd., Tianjin Maoyan Weying Media Co., Ltd., Fujian Pingtan Turan Movie co., Ltd., Shanghai Hanna Pictures Co., Ltd.
Cast: Zhang Yu (Song Hao), Song Jia (Pan Xiaoshuang), Wang Yanhui (Song Jianfei), Li Hongqi (Li Tang), Deng Enxi (Wan Xiaoning), Zhou Zhengjie (young Song Hao), Chen Jin (Xu Ruifang, Song Hao’s mother), Zhang Jianya (Zhang, headmaster), Ye Qing (Jiang Fan, Song Jianfei’s lover), Gao Yuhang (young Li Tang), Zhao Longhao (Wan Youliang, Wan Xiaoning’s father), Ding Guanzhong (car mechanic), Lin Jinfeng (Pan Jianyun, Pan Xiaoshuang’s father/police chief), Jin Hui (Li Weiguo, Li Tang’s father)
Date of First Release in Territory: November 6th, 2020
The third film written and directed by Li Xiaofeng, like his previous films Nezha (2014) and Ash (2017), is an exercise in existential reflection. A screenwriter and film critic before becoming a director, Li Xiaofeng aims to bring to the screen not so much a story but the inner world of the characters who inhabit it, although the film remains firmly rooted in the matrix of the drama/thriller genre. The theme of the film is whether it is possible to escape one’s destiny – whether redemption from sin is possible or perdition is inevitable.
The story is set in a traditional coastal town in Southern China, where a web of intrigue envelops the social fabric of the town in a perverse, almost feudal spiral. The main character is Song Hao, a brilliant high school student, son of a low-level bureaucrat, who in the early 1990s is denied – in favour of Li Tang, his best friend and son of the vice-mayor – the scholarship that would have allowed him to enrol at university without having to take the dreaded gaokao entrance exam.
Enraged by this injustice, Song Hao decides to visit Li Tang, who lives in a row of houses that are all identical, but he enters the wrong house and is mistaken for a thief by the owner, who attacks him with a knife. To defend himself, Song Hao ends up striking the man and, convinced that he has killed him, runs away without realising that his father Song Jianfei and Li Tang have seen what has happened. In order to protect his son, Song Jianfei ends up killing the wounded man and Li Tang does not speak up about what he saw, perhaps out of loyalty to his friend, but also because he realises that he has a valuable blackmail tool.
After fifteen years in exile working as a labourer, Song Hao returns home for his mother’s funeral to find his father has a new family; by chance, he meets an old school friend who immediately recognises him. Pan Xiaoshuang, played with flair by actress Song Jia, is the daughter of the local police commissioner. Song Hao’s lifelong love interest is strong and independent – she is still unmarried in her late thirties – and determined to win Song Hao over; he clings to her as his only lifeline. But the reckoning comes mercilessly: Li Tang, who has become a building contractor and has a complicated and corrupt relationship with Song Hao’s father, who in the meantime has been promoted to high-ranking bureaucrat, starts blackmailing Song Hao, drawing him into a despicable crime...
Although some narrative passages are not very clear, the sense of the film shines through in the face of Zhang Yu, the actor who plays Song Hao as an adult, and who by now has been typecast in the role of a taciturn man who has it in for life (see his previous films Dying to Survive and A Cool Fish), but who is good-natured and on an impossible quest for spiritual salvation. Reassuring us that justice prevails are the usual irksome end captions, which tell of the arrest of the true-life criminals the film was inspired by. The part of the film that works best is the portrayal of the relationship between Song Hao and Pan Xiaoshuang, with small gestures and moments of great intensity that underline the psychological dynamic between the two – the scene in which Song Hao unexpectedly proposes marriage is particularly touching.
The film is underpinned by excellent performances from the entire cast, who effectively convey the sense of oppression created by the web of complicity in which they all find themselves trapped. Another key element of the film is the splendid cinematography, with plays of light that emphasise in a very evocative way the various situations the characters find themselves in and the emotional rollercoaster they are on. Rainfall is a constant presence in the film, seeming to loom ominously over the territory, preventing the inhabitants from having a clear vision of life and pushing Song Hao into a tunnel of nihilism, at the end of which no glimmer of hope can be seen.
Li Xiaofeng (Anhui, 1978) studied cinema at Sint-Lukas della LUCA – School of Arts in Brussels. He is a film critic and writer, and wrote the screenplay for Dada’s Dance di Zhang Yuan (2008), also starring in it. His debut behind the camera was Nezha (2014), which was in competition at the Busan International Film Festival and was on the shortlist at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards for directing and screenplay.
2014 – Nezha
2017 – Ash
2020 – Back to the Wharf