Making a debut feature is a difficult task. As a director, you have to persuade everyone that you are worthy of attention, particularly in a big industry like China’s. The pressure is tough because this will always be the first “big thing” on your resume, and thus it is easy to over complicate it. There is a thin line between showing your potential and showing off. Li Yuhe’s feature debut Absurd Accident steps over this line too often. This in many ways entertaining film is too self-centered for its own good. A story that starts with erectile dysfunction and ends with quite a few murders is ambitious and funny, but too eager in attempting to impress. Absurd Accident is, like the lives of its protagonists, a mess.
Quite obviously, plenty of absurd things happen here and almost all of them are ridiculously funny. The movie takes place in one particularly bizarre town that is crawling with greedy and selfish people. A motel owner, his wife, a murdering doctor, two robbers, a couple of lovers, and a deaf guy. These characters are comic figures that always make the worst possible decision and, as a result, things escalate to a bloody and confusing finale. We enter a malicious fictional world where all moral values are absent. Every man for himself. This is China where individuality is the worst thing imaginable because it leads to violence and lies. There is not a single positive figure in Absurd Accident.
A few reviewers have already mentioned that it feels almost Coen-ish. Sometimes way too much and that might be its biggest problem. The Coen brothers use a sophisticated net of absurd characters while understanding how to build a deceiving narrative. Their movies are funny but also depressing; entertaining but also disturbing. Li relies too much on this tradition while missing the entire point of their poetics. It is not just about absurdness. It is a combination of irrational thriller, deadpan comedy, great actors, and an incredible use of film style (for their amazing wide shots, to give just one example). In contrast, Absurd Accident is incoherent. Especially stylistically speaking.
So, why is it incoherent? Let me go back to the first paragraph where I proposed that debut features create an opportunity for a new director to shine but also to oversell themselves. In the first half of the film, we have a short scene where our protagonist runs downstairs while panicking and the camera is fixed on the detail of his head. These ten seconds feel like a Guy Richie movie. It would be a nice touch but this is the only time we see that kind of camera work. And there is a lot of panic in the rest of the story yet this never comes back. A few minutes later, we get a clear example of a different character’s perception through point-of-view shot while hearing breathing. Through the film we get a few exciting camera angles or a visualization of thoughts in a comic book bubble but again, there is no stylistic pattern. These techniques appear out of the nowhere and then vanish.
Then there is Li’s use of slapstick. There are two or three moments where style becomes pretty self-aware for no reason whatsoever. Absurd Accident switches to black and white, adds cabaret music and fast motion but there is not a single reason for going slapstick. Absurd but unmotivated. It is obvious how hard Li is trying. Even the finale is in this slapstick mode, thus we get no sense of fulfillment. Everything Absurd Accident was going towards goes for waste. The same goes for the entire process of storytelling. Why the chapter format? At first it seems like every character has their own chapter, but as the number of flashbacks grows, the plot gets more confusing and clumsy. There are no sophisticated rhythmic relations between chapters in the second half. These stylistic and narrative variations feel forced. Like a showcase. Like an uncontrolled debut.
Absurd Accident may not be an amazing film but there is great talent in it. Li is going to be an interesting filmmaker and I look forward to see him grow and calm down. But for now, his sense of the absurd is closer to the exhausting deadpan comedy of Jun Geng’s Free and Easy (2017) than the masterful black humor of Chung Mong-Hong’s Godspeed (2016).