2014 has proved to be the year that the cinema of mainland China finally hit the road with The Continent and Breakup Buddies offering populist travel narratives in which frustrated protagonists try to escape the disappointments of daily life. The road movie is very much a staple of global cinema in that it has become a universal genre with local variations, but China has been slow to deliver its equivalent to Easy Rider (1969), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), or Y Tu Mamá También (2001). This is perhaps because driving across the vast landscape of the People’s Republic is often seen more as an ordeal than as a romantic pursuit, while China has only developed a car culture in the past decade, with vehicles being a sign of social-economic status rather than a symbol of freedom. Released over the summer, The Continent was a curiously hollow experience from the celebrity blogger Han Han in which two friends from a village on the eastern coast set-off on a journey of self-discovery when one is assigned a teaching position in the western coast. A few months later, it was followed by Ning Hao’s more broadly comedic Breakup Buddies, which largely favors crude hijinks over melancholic soul-searching, at least until it takes a surprisingly serious turn in its final stretch.
Geng Hao (Bo Huang) is a Beijing-based singer-songwriter turned second-hand stereo dealer whose world has collapsed since his wife walked out on him for a wealthier rival (Li Chen). When her divorce lawyer arrives to serve the papers, Geng is complying all too literally with the Chinese custom that a couple’s items are equally divided on separation by cutting all of their possessions – from handbags and ornaments to iPad and air-conditioning unit – in half. He later intends to take his anger out on the man he believes has wronged him and stalks his wife’s new partner with the intent of bludgeoning him with a hammer while intoxicated, but cannot go through with it. Realizing that Geng needs to get away for a few days to clear his head, his movie producer best friend Hao Yi (Xu Zheng) takes him on a cross-country trip to the tourist resort of Dali in Yunnan province, where he has a time-travel adventure in production. Hao is ostensibly making the journey to deliver some props to the crew, but is really hoping to enjoy a string of one night stands: his first conquest is Dongdong (Tao Hui), a dancer in an Avatar stage-show who he fails to recognize the following day when the besotted performer follows him without her Na’vi make-up. Geng and Hao subsequently encounter various obstacles before reaching Dali – an accident caused by their bickering and an encounter with some low-level gangsters – with their eventual destination having a special significance for Geng as he had met his wife there in 2009.
Much of the first half focuses on the efforts of Hao to get Geng laid which positions Breakup Buddies as a Chinese spin on the bromance sub-genre in which the unwavering loyalty of best friends is seen as a virtue, even when their behavior is questionable. Such a situation plays out here when the pair stop to visit Hao’s online friend “Christina” (Zhou Dongyu), a hairdresser and cosplay enthusiast; Hao encourages Geng to stand-in for him, happy to deceive the girl who has developed feelings during their virtual relationship if it means that his friend will get over his marital woes, only for the girl’s boyfriend to turn up and ruin the plan. However, the rambunctious humor that has been Ning’s trademark since his breakout hit Crazy Stone (2006) shifts down a gear as Geng comes to terms with where giving up on his dreams of becoming a singer has taken him and Hao trades his foul-mouthed bluster for warm-hearted support.
The film’s change in tone is signaled by a perfectly played long-take in which the heartbroken Geng finally returns his wife’s missed calls and finds out that she is going to immediately remarry and culminates with his eventual breakdown in Dali where he runs afoul of some locals following an outburst. It’s not exactly a smooth transition – despite its slender narrative, the film has six credited screenwriters who often seem to be pulling the proceedings in different directions – but one that nonetheless finds Ning trying to transition into more mature territory without alienating the following that has made him China’s undisputed king of lowbrow comedy. While most road movies are about the journey rather than the destination, it is only when Geng and Hao reach Dali that Ning is able to make his point: the chancers who have populated his comedies since Crazy Stone – some of whom have been played by regular collaborator Huang – are reaching an age where they have accumulated a certain number of regrets but must deal with their mistakes in order to start afresh.
Breakup Buddies just about gets by on a certain amount of goodwill that stems from it’s casting with Xu and Huang being reunited following the runaway success of Lost in Thailand (2012). They also appeared in Ning’s long-delayed black comedy No Man’s Land (2013), but their paring here relies more on the popularity of the tourist farce and they demonstrate enough chemistry to overcome the inconsistent material. Their banter is packed with foul language but, probably still reeling from the lengthy censorship disputes over No Man’s Land, Ning otherwise plays it safe with soft satirical targets scattered throughout and a lame lesbian gag that the audience can see coming a mile off even if the hapless central duo cannot. The box office returns for Breakup Buddies – which is one of only four films to gross over 1 billion Yuan in the domestic market – will ensure a run of mainland China road movies in the next year or so, but if a director as talented as Ning is happy to settle for a sporadically amusing crowd-pleaser, it is unlikely that any of those who follow his lead will come up with anything approaching an iconic original.