INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL PREMIERE
万里归途 (Wan Li Gui Tu)
China, 2022, 137’, Mandarin
Directed by: Rao Xiaozhi
Screenplay: Rao Xiaozhi, Qin Haiyan, Lei Zhilong, Shi Ce, Bu Jingwei
Photography (color): Liao Ni
Editing: Ye Xiang
Art Direction: Li Miao
Styling: Li Zhou
Music: Li Heng
Sound: Jiang Jianqiang
Action: Fu Xiaojie
Visual Effects: Liu Ying, Chen Jianwei
Executive Direction: Ma Ming
Production Companies: Shanghai Huace Pictures (CN), Shenzhen Yiyiyiyi Culture Communication (CN), Zhejiang HG Entertainment (CN), G! Film (Beijing) (CN), Beijing Free Whale Pictures (CN)
Cast: Zhang Yi (Zong Dawei, first secretary at Consular Protection Centre), Wang Junkai (Cheng Lang, Consular Protection Centre staffer), Yin Tao (Bai Hua, wife of Zhang Ning), Cheng Taishen (Yan Xingzhou, political attache), Zhang Zixian (Zhang Ning, first secretary at embassy in Numia), Chen Haoyu (Zhong Ranran), Wang Xun (Liu Minghui)
Date of First Release in Territory: September 30th, 2022
This account of the evacuation of a group of Chinese citizens from an Arab country, with its patent patriotic subtext, seems an unusual choice for a director like Rao Xiaozhi (A Cool Fish, FEFF 2019 and Endgame, FEFF 2021), whose work is inspired by the Theatre of the Absurd. Indeed, it is perhaps the absurdity of war and the consequences that conflicts have on the lives of individuals that makes up the film’s underlying theme. The story takes place in 2015 in Numia, a fictitious country with a vaguely Middle Eastern or North African appearance (very believably recreated sets in China, where the entire film was shot during the Covid lockdown). Here, a civil war is endangering the lives of a group of Chinese workers employed in a civil engineering project. Their passports have been confiscated, preventing them from leaving the country. The Chinese embassy, which is evacuating all Chinese citizens in Numia, has to resolve the impasse by sending representatives to negotiate a solution. A duo of officials ends up on a mission to save the lives of their fellow countrymen: Zong Dawei, a Foreign Ministry official who speaks perfect Arabic and has worked in Numia for many years, and the young Cheng Lang, intelligent and competent but still idealistic, naive and even a little arrogant. The character conflict and strategic approach to problem-solving between the two is one of the film’s narrative threads, and is somewhat reminiscent of the Detective Chinatown series of films, although the moral is very different from those films: it is not the young who have the solution to the problems, but the government represented by older and more experienced people that everyone – young and old alike – must obey. For their own good, of course!
Another meaningful dimension of the film is the psychological complexity of the characters, especially that of the protagonist Zong Dawei, played with his usual nonchalance by Zhang Yi, an actor whose phlegmatic demeanour is particularly suited to expressing the ambiguity of characters who switch effortlessly from highs to lows. There are indeed some comic moments in the film – though in my opinion not particularly successful – that play on the cultural differences between the Chinese and the “foreign” mentality, but also with the psychological discomfort of Zong Dawei’s character, torn between a desire to return home to his expectant wife who is anxiously waiting for him, and the sense of patriotic duty that requires him to finish his assigned mission first, even at the risk of his own life. A further source of internal conflict is the sense of personal responsibility Zong Dawei feels towards a colleague and friend who was killed in an assassination attempt, and whose wife is among the group of Chinese nationals in danger. Which is more important: to be a father to his unborn child or to be of service to his country?
The film, which with its CNY 1.5 billion in takings dominated the box office in China during the Golden Week of the National Holiday in October, inevitably recalls Wolf Warrior II (FEFF 2018) both in its storyline centred on Chinese citizens stranded in a foreign and hostile country and in the moral of the story – China does not abandon its citizens, wherever they may be. Both films were huge commercial successes, the difference being that Home Coming is not an action film, the dynamics of the story relying more on psychological warfare than on the physical strength and skill of the protagonists. This is the hallmark of Rao Xiaozhi’s style, a director more concerned with the internal dynamics of the characters than the events they find themselves embroiled in.
Rao Xiaozhi (Guizhou, 1980) graduated in directing from the Central Academy of Drama in 2003. He made his debut as an actor in a play by the renowned director Meng Jinhui, whose assistant he later became. In 2008, he debuted as a scriptwriter and theatre director. He directed the television comedy series The Best and Biggest Battles in 2013. Rao’s first feature film, The Insanity, is the screen adaptation of one of his plays. The creator of a genre called “the gentleman’s comedy” inspired by the Theatre of the Absurd, he continues to work in both film and theatre, inspired by authors such as Samuel Beckett and Johnnie To.
2016 – The Insanity
2018 – A Cool Fish
2020 – Endgame
2022 – Home Coming